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Wilmington on DVD: Howl, Busby Berkeley, Dinner for Schmucks, Machete


Howl (B)
U.S.; Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010, Oscilloscope Laboratories

Howl is the great Beat poem by that great Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, and this movie both visualizes (and animates) the poem, with all its evocations of Fritz Lang, Rimbaud and Walt Whitman to show us a '50s world and, in Howl, "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical, naked searching for an ancient connection in the starry dynamo of night." The movie portrays the poet before, after -- and especially during -- his most crucial anxious life-moment: Howl's trial for obscenity in San Francisco.

The direction is by those admirable gay-themes documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. The script comes straight from the trial transcripts, and they're amazingly entertaining, packed with drama and personality. Howl itself is read by lead actor James Franco and illustrated and animated by art director Eric Crooker.

The players, besides Franco, include David Strathairn as the sincere if wrong-headed prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, Bob Balaban as the eminently fair but unpredictable Judge Clayton Horn, Jon Hamm as the plucky defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, Jeff Daniels as the bigoted "expert literary witness" professor David Kirk, Treat Williams as witness, critic and Sinclair Lewis biographer Mark Schorer, and, in half of one of the year's top acting displays, Franco as a letter-perfect, and simmeringly emotional Ginsberg -- completing a terrific 2010 actor's double whammy together with his other great 2010 performance, as climber/explorer Aron Ralston in 127 Hours.

If they allowed double nominations in the acting category, Franco would easily get my double vote. Ginsberg -- whom I met twice, in Madison, Wis., and at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention riots -- gets my triple vote as a great poet, a major American cultural figure and a gentle, good-hearted man.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (A)
U.S.; Ridley Scott, 1982, Warner Bros., Blu-ray

Blade Runner was considered a failure in its time -- in 1982 when star Harrison Ford was at his Han Solo-Indiana Jones box-office summit, and the movie's way sub-Star Wars receipts were as unpleasant a surprise as the shocks that waylay Ford's futuristic cop Rick Deckard in this darkest of sci-fi epics. Nowadays, director Ridley Scott's visually overwhelming film of the Philip K. Dick novel is rightly judged a classic -- a masterpiece of both science fiction and film noir, and a fit subject for this stunning "final cut" edition.

Dick's novel was originally called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; the title Blade Runner comes from "beat" master William Burroughs. The movie, written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples (who wrote Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven) gives us the hard-bitten Deckard as a anti-replicant squad cop in 21st century Los Angeles, a dark, rainy, neon-drenched city of night in which the look of heavy metal is mixed with the mood of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Replicants are "off world" work (or slave) robots who look (and behave) so real they often try (and fail) to pass for human. Deckard's job is to catch some renegade reps led by Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty (the performance he'll never top): a cadre that includes sumptuous Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy and wild-eyed Brion James ("Time to die!"), with Deckard aided by a savagely streetwise L.A. cop contingent that includes Edward James Olmos and a pre-Blood Simple M. Emmet Walsh. In the middle is Sean Young's Rachael: Is she futuristic Lauren Bacall heroine or replicant femme fatale?

This splendid package contains the new "Final Cut," which, we're assured, is Scott's last word on the subject. The movie is great, of course -- though it's always had its severe detractors and still does -- but this package is close to an ultimate example of the modern DVD maker's art as well. The documentaries by the way, tell us that Fancher intended Runner as a noir from the beginning -- albeit a smaller-scaled, lower-budgeted pre-Ridley Scott noir -- and that he wrote Rick Deckard not for an actor like Harry Ford but for longtime noir icon Robert Mitchum.


Greatest Classic Movies Collection: Busby Berkeley Musicals (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1933-36, TCM/Warner Brothers

Busby Berkeley was the wildly imaginative, totally inimitable, wondrously absurd movie musical choreographer who -- working for Warner Brothers in the '30s -- turned the dance floor into a kaleidoscope, made the cameras fly, and set the Warners soundstages ablaze and abloom with hundreds of smiling, lightly dressed (or undressed) chorus girls who, under Berkeley's tutelage and generalship, became an unprecedented army of dazzling dames.

The songs in the shows were usually by Al Dubin (words) and Harry Warren (music): bouncy, catchy and risqué, Depression-proof. (Warren wrote that proletarian classic "I Found a Million Dollar Baby in the Five and Ten Cent Store.")

The Warners casts were memorably energetic, spry, uniquely Berkeleyesque: dimpled Dick Powell, sweetie Ruby Keeler, sassy Ginger Rogers and tough cookie Joan Blondell to sing the songs, and dance the dances; streetwise Allen Jenkins, nervous Frank McHugh, barmy Hugh ("Woo Woo!") Herbert and foxy grandpa Guy Kibbee for comedy, and, for one glorious movie (Footlight Parade), Jimmy Cagney at his jazziest and slap-happiest as Berkeley alter-ego choreographer-director-reluctant star Chester Kent to hoof and dream and slap people around.

The result was unmistakably Berkeley: hot and saucy mixtures of fast-talking Depression-era cynicism, Boy-Meets-Girl romance, and outlandish musical numbers that were supposed to be staged in Broadway or Chicago theaters, but could have taken place on no theatrical stage on earth, except maybe the Roman Coliseum, with a few major alterations. Watch the last three incredible numbers in Footlight Parade -- three numbers supposedly staged one after the other in separate Chicago theaters -- and your jaw may damned well drop to your ankles.

Lots of directors and choreographers have tried to copy Berkeley's dancing cameras and his patented kaleidoscopic "top shots" ever since the '30s (Fred Astaire's and Gene Kelly's great routines were classicist revolts against the Berkeley trend). But the mimics lack Berkeley's energy, his pizazz, his razzmatazz, his full-blown embrace of absurdity. Most of all, they lack Busby Berkeley himself. (Extras: vintage musical shorts, including one with Harry Warren playing his songs on piano; dramatic shorts and Looney Tunes; featurettes; excerpt from 1929's Gold Diggers of Broadway; radio promos; trailers; notes on Berkeley.)


42nd Street (A)
U.S.; Lloyd Bacon, 1933
The most famous of all Berkeley musicals. Warner Baxter is the driven, tormented director, Dick Powell the writer-tenor, Ginger Rogers the vamp and Ruby Keeler the little girl who's going out a chorus girl but coming back a star. Stanley Kubrick named this as one of his 10 all-time favorite films; lots of people agree with him. Songs: "42nd Street," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me."

Footlight Parade (A)
U.S.; Lloyd Bacon; 1933
Berkeley's best movie. Jimmy Cagney, at his zippiest and toughest, is the Buz surrogate, Dick Powell is the smiling songwriter, Ruby Keeler the sweetheart singer, Joan Blondell the gal Friday. And, my God, those last three numbers -- the cheerfully lewd "Honeymoon Hotel" (with Billy Barty as a rascally infant), the outrageous water ballet to "By a Waterfall," and the snazzy Von Sternbergian melodrama and New Deal march of "Shanghai Lil" -- are mindblowers of the first order.

Dames (B)
U.S.; Ray Enright; 1934)
Powell, Keeler, Kibbee and Herbert again. Another opening, another show. The songs include the classics "Dames" and "I Only Have Eyes for You" and the amazing "When You Were a Smile on Your Mother's Lips, and a Twinkle in Your Daddy's Eye."

Gold Diggers of 1937 (B)
U.S.; Loyd Bacon; 1936

A pretty silly movie; incredibly, it's from a play by Dick Maibaum, who went on to write most of the very urbane James Bond movies. In it, Dick Powell sells insurance, and Osgood Perkins (Tony's dad) tries to collect triple indemnity on musical show backer Victor Moore, while Dick, Joan Blondell and Lee Dixon throw a show together. Berkeley, who got musical ideas from his stretch in the military in World War I as a field artillery lieutenant, shows off his fighting spirit in the memorably campy boy's army vs. girl's army number "All's Fair in Love and War." Also: "With Plenty of Money and You."


Dinner for Schmucks (C+)
U.S.; Jay Roach, 2010, Dreamworks

Dinner for Schmucks is an Americanization of that very funny Veber comedy The Dinner Game. Dinner Game is all about a mock and mocking get-together in which smug bourgeois business-creeps invite what they consider obnoxious losers (or their inferiors) to a dejeuner, indulge and secretly ridicule them, and then present a prize for the biggest schmuck, or most outrageous asshole. Of course, the tables get turned. Of course, the asshole and the bourgeois who invited him -- Veber's original mismatched dinner companions were anxious Thierry Lhermitte and the unusually annoying Jacques Villeret -- wind up sort of liking each other.

Paul Rudd and Steve Carell play the bourgeois and the schmuck here, and they're actors who work well together, as they already showed in Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Rudd plays Tim Conrad, a would-be exec success with a sexy-sweet art gallery girlfriend named Julie (Stephanie Szostak). Tim, who thinks he can impress Julie with money, is a nice guy whose nave desire for winner status in a typical callous corporation full of well-dressed bullies, back-stabbers and ass-kissers, makes him easy prey to the invitation of his "con" of a boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood, with his world-class smirk) to find a loser and come to party with the winners. Rudd is a perfect fit for a role like this: He's like a less nervous Jack Lemmon, crossed with a slightly dazed and confused Billy Crystal.

Carell's Barry -- a repressed and goofily grinning IRS auditory whom Tim accidentally hits with his car -- is too well-meaning and terminally nice to be called a real asshole. He's the ideal perfect loser though. Like Peter Sellers, Carell can go so deeply into comic self-delusion, that he pulls us all down there with him.

The script isn't structured very well, and the jokes are erratic. In this feast of comics, there's sometimes a famine of laughs. But the laughs are there eventually. I'll bet there was a lot of improvisation on this set -- and with Dinner for Schmucks' gallery of stooges and smoothies, and Barry's gallery of "mouseterpieces," you get at least some of your comedy money's worth. (Extras: deleted scenes; Schmuck-ups.)

Machete (C+)
U.S.; Robert Rodriguez, 2010, 20th Century Fox

For me, this was a big disappointment. Robert Rodriguez can be a great pulpy filmmaker, as he is in Desperado and Sin City, and here he seems to have a platform ripe for good cheap thrills and schlocky shocks, crazy comedy and acid social commentary: the no-holds-barred ultra-violent Grindhouse tale of a Mexican EveryHitman named Machete, who's mistakenly hired by a mysterious politico (Jeff Fahey, of White Hunter, Black Heart) to take part in a phony assassination scheme rigged to boost the candidacy of a right-wing, anti-immigration U.S. senator (Robert De Niro), who's secretly in league with a vicious Mexican drug lord (Steven Seagal, off-type) and a psychopathic border vigilante chief (Don Johnson).

Best of all, the hero/antihero part of Machete is played by Rodriguez favorite Danny Trejo, who has great tattoos, a great weathered face, a good working knowledge of dangerous criminals, and happens to be one of the most prolific (and reliable) actors in movie history. Trejo has actually done 70 movie roles since the joke trailer for Machete appeared in Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse double feature in 2007. He's done (or is slated for) 195 movie roles throughout his career, ever since Andrei Konchalovsky jump-started Trejo's career in 1985, by casting this deadly-looking acting amateur and obvious natural as the main boxing match heavy in Runaway Train.

Trejo also has two terrific leading ladies: Jessica Alba as knockout border cop Sartana and Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, a drop-dead activist and immigrant-smuggler who operates a Mexican underground railroad out of a burrito stand. And I haven't even mentioned Cheech Marin as the local Padre (who gets crucified), and Lindsay Lohan as April, Fahey's drug-addict daughter, who runs wild in a nun's habit.

Unfortunately, I had more fun writing out that cast list than I did watching the movie. Not that the show isn't entertaining. (How could it not be?) But after dreaming up that franchise peg (Machete, to be followed in Bond-like procession, by Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again) and after hiring that cast, and especially after getting Danny Trejo locked in, Rodriguez seems to have thought the script would write itself. It didn't. This picture -- designed to look like a bad, sleazy but fun and exciting '70s movie actioner, something like Truck Turner or Billy Jack -- actually is (often) genuinely bad and sleazy. (Extras: digital copy; audience reaction track; deleted scenes.)

I Am Love (B)
Italy; Luca Guadagnino, 2009, Magnolia

A super-rich Italian industrialist divides his power among his son and grandson, precipitating all kinds of emotional and business crises, especially rattling his son's beautiful, troubled Russian wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover, the master chef best friend of her son.

Overrated, I think; the dialogue is uninspired, and the sets really made me miss Visconti. The visuals too often resembled a British TV period drama rather than, say The Leopard or The Damned. But it's intelligent, well-acted, well-shot: a good realistic drama with ideas about life, and with a fine score by John Adams. I may be too rough on it. In English and Italian, with English subtitles. (Extras: commentary by Guadagnino and Swinton; featurette; interviews with cast and crew.)

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