Buster Keaton’s Best, Funniest Movie

I love Buster Keaton–nearly 100 years on, his movies are still some of the most amazing, hilarious, creative, and wild ones out there.

Earlier this year, I showed my family his little masterpiece Sherlock Jr. At only 45 minutes, it didn’t strain anyone’s attention span, nor did the lack of dialogue confuse even the youngest kids.

The jokes, the stunts, and a very early bit of meta-commentary on film itself make this one of my favorite movies. The kids, too, have asked to see it again since then. Enjoy!

 

Here’s a great analysis of Keaton’s work and legacy:

Recommended Reading: 2001: A Space Odyssey

20011Although I was first exposed to Kubrick’s classic film in high school, I was too sleepy/ dumb/ apathetic to pay much attention.  Despite that, I was pretty familiar with it, if only because of the ubiquitous references to it in pop culture (I can remember at least a few just from Sesame Street). 

A few years ago, I found myself planning for the last day of summer school, where I would spend the first half of the day reviewing and then administering a final exam, and the second half of the day grading it and filling out paperwork.  As the students would obviously be done with the course itself after the exam, an extraneous activity was needed to fill the time while I worked.  (Technically, administrations are supposed to have us give the exam and grade it during the second half of the last day, while we’re simultaneously supposed to continue doing regular class work with them–an expectation so impossibly ridiculous that nobody anywhere has ever tried to enforce it).

Not being a fan of time-wasting movies, I wanted something calm and cerebral for them to try.  Remembering 2001, I checked it out of the library.  As long and slow as it is, (and as much as I was trying to focus on my work, which I mercifully finished earlier than I’d expected to), I was dazzled by it, by all of it: the visuals, the music, the ambition of the story’s epic scope.  How could such a simple and simply-told movie be so fantastically overwhelming? 

Since then, this has been a landmark of art in my mind.  Thus it’s not surprising that, eventually, I’d read Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, which he wrote at the same time as he and Kubrick wrote the screenplay. 

Continue reading

Recommended Viewing: A Man For All Seasons

mfasI’d actually seen this movie before.  When I was a senior in high school, an older man at my church started inviting me to watch some deep, classic movies with him and then talk about them.  For some reason, it never occurred to me to question why this casual acquaintance was taking such a sudden interest in me.  In retrospect, leaders at church probably saw how unstable I was and had asked him, a steady, intellectual sort with whom I might have some things in common, to take me under his wing and give me some support.  If it was an assignment, it sure never felt like it, and I’m glad we had that time together.

Anyway, one of the movies he introduced me to was A Man For All Seasons.  However, being a slacker teenager, I regret to admit that I feel asleep right away and was out the whole time.  I felt pretty bad, because I remember him telling me that it was his favorite movie. 

I just went back and watched it again yesterday, and now it’s one of my favorites, too.

Let me start with a minor observation: this is a very talky film, and therefore chiefly filmed indoors (or at least enclosed areas), and therefore has few outdoor or panoramic shots.  Still, the background and scenery that we do get is breathtaking.  The alternating snows and flowers of England are a joy to behold, and somehow these older movies capture them for us with a visceral liveliness that the more “sophisticated” current methods lack. 

Now, on to the star of the show.  Paul Scofield’s majestic turn as Sir Thomas More?  No, the dialogue.  Continue reading

Five Classic Movies I’ve Seen In The Last Month

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

I heard an interview on the radio in the early 90’s with rap group Public Enemy where they were asked about cursing out John Wayne in one of their songs.  Chuck D said it was a protest against Wayne “going around shooting Indians” in his movies.

I thought about this as I watched She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, where Wayne stars as an old cavalry commander who finds himself about to retire just as a conflict is escalating with nearby Native American tribes.  At the end of the film, desperate to stop the brewing fighting, Wayne goes to see the old chief of the Indians.  Showing an easy familiarity with and respect for their culture, Wayne asks this longtime friend to help him stop the younger men from starting a war.  The old chief tells Wayne that there’s nothing they can do because they’re too old.  In one of the most moving, stereotype-defying quotes I’ve ever heard on film, Wayne chuckles and says, with the kind of gentle chiding we use to disagree with good friends, “Old men should stop wars.” 

Wayne then risks his career, just hours before retiring with full benefits and honors, to go against orders and lead a run on the Indians’ camp and chase their horses away, thus averting the crisis without violence. 

I suppose Chuck D never saw She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

Incidentally, it was a terrific movie.  I especially enjoyed the shots of a wagon company moving along the plains under a gathering thunderstorm.  Very atmospheric. 

 

Singin’ In The Rain

There’s a lot to recommend this classic musical.  First of all, it’s hilarious.  As Gene Kelly recounts his career at the beginning of the film, I was surprised to see such a relatively old movie sporting such a pitch-perfect satire of Hollywood’s excessive foibles.  Jean Hagen’s work as the ditsy, scheming, annoying-voiced bombshell is still unsurpassed.  That alone makes me wish more people would see this movie now: that character will always be funny.  And Donald O’Connor’s athletic slapstick during the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number was impressive as choreography and as comedy.  It certainly makes anything Jim Carrey or Jack Black has ever done look like child’s play.

 

Howard’s End

I was apprehensive about this one, because I was underwhelmed by Anthony Hopkins’ and Emma Thompson’s other joint effort, Remains of the Day.  I needn’t have been.  This slightly soap opera-y web of social criticism takes on class divisions in early 20th century Edwardian England.  This may be the only movie where the upper class British bad guys are actually portrayed realistically, even with some sympathy, and not just as cartoon monsters.  A young Helena Bonham Carter is a joy to watch as Thompson’s fiery younger sister, whose passion ranges from indignation to biting wit to spontaneous romance.  Really, it’s a wonder I didn’t like Pride and Prejudice more than I did. 

Not to short change the cast, but I was equally thrilled by the cinematography and score here.  Howard’s End reminds us just how subtly beautiful the English countryside is; verdant green is always gorgeous, especially when veiled by a misty gray breeze.  And the music!  The delicate piano throughout the film was more than just a complement, it was symbiotic.  This is one of the few movies of which I know where the music truly is that important, and stands well on its own (Hitchcock’s Rear Window is another example).  I could see myself buying this soundtrack and listening to it on the way home from work.

 

The 39 Steps

Speaking of Hitchcock, this was the latest entry in my efforts to screen his oeuvre.  This very early work is just typical, ordinary Hitch, which is to say, brilliant.  One of the great joys of seeing his movies is finding those elemental devices that influenced later cinema so thoroughly that it’s like discovering an ancient Ur-text (North By Northwest and Strangers On A Train might be the best examples here). 

Sadly, since we’ve all been raised on those derivative movies that are so saturated in Hitchcock’s legacy, seeing his original visions can leave us feeling flat, since the celluloid for which we have such nostalgia was usually so much more exaggerated than those earlier classics.  Such is sometimes the case with The 39 Steps, but it will still surprise you. 

Our Everyman protagonist is on the run from a sinister cabal of spies that he has haplessly crossed (naturally), and some of his exploits rely on more coincidence on his part and negligence on his enemies’ part than we would find credible today.  Still, the pacing and plotting here is taught, and the scene where our hero wows a crowd with an impromptu speech at a political convention as he evades the authorities is worth two hours of your life by itself.  And a tasteful “bedroom” scene where he is handcuffed to an equally hapless heroine is a touching reminder that this world used to be a simpler, sweeter place, and made for better entertainment than the lowest common denominator sludge we see today.

Last year I saw this movie in a bin at Wal Mart for a dollar.  I wish I would’ve gotten it.

 

Solaris

I’ve read that this 1972 science fiction psychodrama was Russia’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The similarities are obvious: these are both ambitious stories using space travel as a metaphor for humanity’s civilizational journey, though Kubrick’s was extroverted, whereas this Russian gem is almost painfully introverted.  The slow, moody pacing of both films certainly stresses our attention spans, but also allows us to savor the style of presentation, if not always the heavy handed ideas.

In fact, one scene in Solaris has an old cosmonaut being driven down a monotonous, sterile city highway, a scene which stretches on for minutes.  I started asking myself what the point of that was, until some sonic sound effects began erupting at us from the vanishing point of the road up ahead.  We were probably being taken into the cosmonaut’s quietly tortured psyche (as a result of a shocking experience at Solaris years before), but I couldn’t help but also be reminded of Dave Bowman’s psychedelic space flight at the end of 2001.  Two sides of the same coin, perhaps?

Solaris makes explicit references to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky near the end, and clearly wants to be taken as seriously.  I respect the audacity of a film this somber, but found much of its emotional pontificating to be trite.  Still, the film is well made and worthwhile, though not something I plan to see again.  But maybe I should; the last time I saw 2001 I got much more out of it than the first time.  I suppose films like this, slow and sparse as they are, might still need time to grow on you.