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Monday, September 15, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 52.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Wilmington on DVD: Desi America
The Namesake, Drunken Angel, Killer of Sheep, and an Elvis box set
This is a wise, winning, sometimes magnificent film.


The Namesake (A)
India-U.S.; Mira Nair, 2007, 20th Century Fox

Mira Nair, the wondrously talented and exuberant India-born director of the modern classics Salaam Bombay and Monsoon Wedding, adds a third jewel to her crown with this complex, warmly humane, gorgeously shot family saga. I loved it -- and not just because I have a soft spot for Nair. It's really the sort of film she was born to make, full of life, intelligence and shrewd observations of Asian and Western life and the spaces in between.

Adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, it's a clash-of-generations piece that follows a successful but emotionally torn Indian American family through several decades of love, conflict, change and anguish. Kal Penn plays Gogol, a surly, self-centered young man angered at what he sees as his absurd name; his father (Irfan Khan) named him "Gogol" after the great Russian writer, for reasons clear only much later. And, as the westernized, New Jersey-ized Gogol keeps rebelling, we can sense that the bonds of culture and family -- with his parents brilliantly played by Khan and the Indian star Tabu -- will finally ensnare him.

Penn is the most recognizable actor here in the West, famous for his comic performance in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. But Khan and Tabu are the two players that break your heart. This is a wise, winning, sometimes magnificent film -- one of the best movie dramas I've seen on the volatile, happy-sad bonds between East and West, parents and children.

Drunken Angel (A)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1948, Criterion Collection

Japan's sensei (master) Akira Kurosawa was a movie master of both action and character -- just like the Americana filmmaker who was Kurosawa's personal favorite, John Ford. In Drunken Angel, the best of all Kurosawa's pre-Rashomon films, and the most critically lauded in Japan, he excels again at action and character, showcasing his two greatest actors, Toshiro Immune and Takashi Shimura, in their best tandem achievement ever except for their roles as the misfit (Mifune) and the leader (Shimura) in Seven Samurai. It's a superb, sentimental piece about an alcoholic doctor (Shimura) who runs a clinic in the meaner side of Tokyo sand becomes involved with a violent young gangster (Mifune).

The two actors are perfect for their roles (as the flawed but beneficent medico and the tigerish but reclaimable delinquent) and perfectly matched; they generate star power and emotional fireworks on a Gable-Tracy or Cagney-Bogart level. And Kurosawa, as always, makes the screen come alive. In his youth, the sensei was an admirer of Frank Capra, as well as Ford, Hawks and George Stevens, and Drunken Angel and Scandal are the movies that most show Capra's special heart-tugging influence.

But Angel also shows the great Japanese filmmaker finding his way to a mastery of the styles of both American post-war film noir and the neo-realism that was then blossoming in Italy -- displaying in Angel a robust, humanistic sense of life on the streets, life as it is, of a quality of commingled naturalism and nightmare that would infuse his samurai masterpieces as well.


Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection (A)
U.S.; Charles Burnett, 1969-2007, Milestone/New Yorker

Last week, I lamented the fact that I couldn't make the Milestone re-release DVD of Charles Burnett's African American classic Killer of Sheep my pick of the week. But I could have finessed the choice by making Milestone's Killer package -- which I received later -- the box set pick. Or even the new film DVD pick, since Milestone just gave the legendary 1977 independent film its first theatrical release. So here it is.

Burnett wrote and directed Killer of Sheep as a UCLA student. Yet he was already a master of realism, on a par with both the Italian postwar masters (Rossellini, De Sica) and the American indie aces (John Cassavetes). Killer of Sheep, shot in black-and-white on L.A. streets by Burnett himself (an excellent cinematographer), is a simple-seeming story about a quiet slaughterhouse worker, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), his wife (Kaycee Moore), and their families, friends and neighbors. But it's full of moments and images whose casual lyricism and profound humanity stay with you: the band of game-playing kids fleeing through the streets, the sheep in wooly confusion at the slaughterhouse, a catastrophic trip to the race track, and Stan's and his wife's exquisite slow dance to a Dinah Washington ballad.

The music track is really another character in Killer, and Burnett assembles a great soundtrack ranging from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong's epochal "West End Blues." The film, shot for small change and never theatrically released until this year (although held in high critical esteem for decades) is a landmark of American independent cinema by a neglected master, now thankfully neglected no longer.

Also included the collection are four Burnett shorts -- Several Friends (B-) (1969), The Horse (B) (1973), When It Rains (B) (1995), and Quiet as Kept (C+) (2007) -- and two different versions of his second film, the funky and perceptive drama My Brother's Wedding, shown here in both the original 1983 release version, and Burnett's recently re-edited (and longer) director's cut. This package is "must" viewing for anyone who loves American film at its most personal and independent. I'm glad I got a second shot at it. (Extras: Commentary on Killer of Sheep by Burnett and Richard Pena; trailer; reunion video; booklet with essay by Armond White.)

Elvis: Blue Suede Collection (B)
U.S., various directors, 1957-70, Warner Home Video

This tasty box shows Elvis' movie career at its best (Jailhouse Rock, Viva Las Vegas and the terrific concert film/documentary That's the Way It Is) and worst (most of the others). In a way, that seems fitting. Elvis Presley should have been as big a movie star as he was a giant in recording. But though his two chart-topping pop predecessors, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, handled their film careers with success and intelligence, Elvis was cursed with the tyrannical bad taste of his overrated, greed-crazed, over-controlling manager, Colonel Tom Parker, the idiot who was responsible for dreck like Girl Happy and Kissin' Cousins and who actually made Elvis turn down the part of Tony in West Side Story, a role offered to him, in which he would have probably triumphed.

Elvis had good taste in movies (he was a devotee of Rebel Without a Cause), and he deserved better than the Colonel, who not only robbed him blind but stuck him in trash like Live a Little, Love a Little and Harum Scarum, one turkey mercifully denied us here. The fire and rock-hard greatness of Jailhouse Rock and That's the Way It Is show what we mostly lost.


Jailhouse Rock (A)
Richard Thorpe, 1957

It Happened at the World's Fair (C+)
Norman Taurog, 1963

Viva Las Vegas (B+)
George Sidney, 1964

Kissin' Cousins (C-)
Gene Nelson, 1964

Girl Happy (C-)
Boris Sagal, 1965

Live a Little, Love a Little (D)
Norman Taurog, 1968

Elvis: That's the Way It Is (A)
Denis Sanders, 1970

This Is Elvis (C-)
Malcolm Leo and Andrew Solt, 1981


Waitress (B)
U.S.; Adrienne Shelly, 2007, 20th Century Fox
She had a winsome smile, killer eyes and the sweet, sexy air of a girl passing by that you see a few times and never forget. But red-headed cinematic charmer Adrienne Shelly -- who first made a splash in Hal Hartley films like Trust -- never quite had her big breakthrough part, or her breakthrough movie when she became a writer-director star. Until, sadly enough, after her death.

When Shelly was murdered last year at her apartment building, she was deprived of the place in the sun her fans (and I was one) always wanted for her. Waitress, which she wrote, directed and acted in, would have won it for her. A fanciful romantic comedy about working girls and their love and professional problems, it would have given her everything she wanted, even though Shelly handed over the lead part in her posthumous film to Keri Russell and played the comic foil. It was an unqualified triumph: a critical hit and an indie sleeper. I understand it had a long run in Madison. Right on. Rest in peace, sweet Ms. Shelly. You made it.

Hot Rod (D)
U.S.; Akiva Schaffer, 2007, Paramount
Awful Will Ferrell style farce produced by, among others, Ferrell and SNL's Lorne Michaels. It's about an Evel Knievel-style stunt daredevil, played by Andy Samberg, who might better be called Weevil Dweebel. You'll probably want to leave (or switch it off) after 15 minuets -- and you'll be right.(Extras: Commentaries by Samberg, Schaffer, and costar Jorma Taccone; featurettes; deleted and extended scenes; trailer, outtakes.)Paprika (B+)
Japan; Satoshi Kon, 2007, Sony
Japanese anime stunner about a machine that captures dreams and the wars waged over it, from Kon, the stylish director of Tokyo Godfathers. (Extras: Commentary by filmmakers; featurettes.)

Talmud (B)
France; Pierre-Henry Salfati, 2006, Facets
A movie on the Talmud? The subject might seem abstruse, but French director Salfati is a scholar who shares his knowledge with passion, reverence and wit, in ways both entertaining and illuminating. Starting in biblical times and proceeding to today, he tells the story of how the Talmud was written and preserved: how this huge compendium of philosophical commentary and texts on the Torah came to be, how it was saved, how it passed from country to country, how it was printed in Venice (a great tale), and how it has affected Jewish life and culture across the ages. This is no dry, tradition-bound cinematic text; Salfati keeps the tales intriguing, the style lively and the humor and intellect flowing. (Extras: Ten featurettes on the Talmud, mostly by Salfati.)

Vitus (B)
Switzerland; Fredi Murer, 2006, Sony
Touching musical family saga about an astonishing boy piano virtuoso (played by the astonishing Teo Gheorghiu), who has trouble adjusting to his schoolmates. Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire) plays Vitus' elfin grandfather; the piano scenes are hair-raising. (Extras: Commentary by Murer, documentary, interview with Ganz, Gheorghiu's screen test.)

Bad Boys (C)
U.S.; Rick Rosenthal, 1983, Anchor Bay
Early Sean Penn, a juvenile delinquent crime drama of fearsome implausibility, which gives him a punchy showcase. With Esai Morales, Clancy Brown and (in her movie debut) Ally Sheedy.

Winter Kills (B-)
U.S.; William Richert, 1979, Anchor Bay
Quintessential '70s neo-noir paranoid thriller from a novel by Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate). Jeff Bridges investigates mysterious Kennedyesque political crimes; John Huston may be at the bottom of them all. Richert is an interesting but flaky moviemaker; the movie is worth a look.

Edvard Munch (A)
United Kingdom; Peter Watkins, 1976, New Yorker
From documentary master Watkins (The War Game), a fascinating bio-drama on the Scandinavian painter of "The Scream." A stinging portrait of outlaw artists and sexual rebels coping with society, this is probably Watkins' best film. It was a favorite of Ingmar Bergman's.

Logan's Run (B-)
U.S.; Michael Anderson, 1976, Warner
In the future, a pleasure-seeking utopia where you can trust anybody over 30 -- but only because they're all killed on that birthday -- Michael York and Jenny Agutter break out and run. Pre-computer sci-fi: Okay, but disappointing. The novel source is by William Nolan and The Twilight Zone's George Clayton Johnson; the cast includes Peter Ustinov, Roscoe Lee Browne and the young Farrah Fawcett.

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