Wednesday, October 19, 2011

#41 Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Sherlock Jr (1924)

So here I am, sitting down in Mid-August to write the first of 6 reviews for movies I watched way back in March. Needless to say, this is going to be a very entertaining experience for me. Unfortunately, I feel this is going to require me to preface this review with a warning to readers that this review may not be anywhere near as thorough or detailed as my previous reviews. As I said, I watched these movies nearly 6 months ago, and although I have notes on the movies that I recorded while I watched them, deciphering these notes and trying to understand what the hell the me of 6 months ago was talking about would probably be more difficult a task than simply writing this review based on vague memories of watching the movie, which are really more memories of how I felt about watching the movie than remembering specific facets of the movie itself. And before the more sensible of my readers come out and say, “why not simply rewatch the movie?” I’m going to go ahead and tell you the peanut gallery to shut it. Calculon does not do two takes!

Anyway to the movie. How do I do these reviews again? It’s been so long that I’ve completely forgotten. Ah yes, I think I always start by identifying my notions and sentiments going into the film. Unfortunately I don’t have some witty or mildly entertaining anecdote about watching this movie as a kid, or being an ignorant, uncultured swine of a high school student. In fact the only anecdote I have about Buster Keaton was blown in the last review. Really this review should be considered the second of a two part review as I watched this movie and Our Hospitality as a sort of double feature as the two came together on the VHS that I watched both these movies on. Generally I don’t like reviewing movies with the same director or actor back to back because then I feel like I’m going to be just running over the same ground, which I feel ends up rather boring to readers and I’m banking on the fact that my readership has a poor memory so they won’t notice when I come back and say the same things 5 months later. But anyway! Here I am, reviewing another Buster Keaton movie directed by Buster Keaton and starring Buster Keaton. I came into this movie after having just seen Our Hospitality, a movie I quite liked, so I was expecting good things, and, I am happy to say that I was in no way let down in my expectations

Yes, this is the part where I summarize the plot. I really don’t like doing the part, and if anything, it’s the part of these reviews that really turns me off from writing the reviews in the first place. But it definitely takes up space, and that is always a plus. I suppose it’s rather like stuffing your pants with paper towels – It adds nothing substantial to the package aside from boosting your ego because it makes you appear much more impressive than you actually are, and it makes the unobservant think you are manly, or in this specific case, cultured or intelligent, but ultimately, when someone bothers to open it up and have a look, you are revealed as a shallow shell of a man who has absolutely nothing to offer. Well that was a fun dive into meta-discussion, wasn’t it? Where was I again? Oh yeah, avoiding the actual review in a sad, sorry attempt to insert some kind of wit into what I don’t doubt is usually a very dull overview of a movie most people have already seen.

This is going to be a tough overview to give as there really isn’t too much of a plot in this movie. Buster Keaton plays a lovable loser who plays the physical manifestation of the general theme of this movie, with which we are greeted at the movie’s opening – that someone who divides his time equally between two tasks will succeed at neither, or to put it in terms more familiar to players of Civilization 4 (if you’ll allow me an attempt at my best Leonard Nimoy impression) “If you try to catch two rabbits, you will lose them both.” Anyway, the point is that Buster is working as a film operator, but he dreams of being an ace detective, because of this; predictably, he’s rather incompetent in both vocations. In spite of his general ineptitude, however, he’s somehow manage to attract the attentions of a beautiful young lady, and so on top of his two chosen vocations, he also blunders about trying to secure her affections, which, possessing neither money nor confidence, he fails at miserably, resulting ultimately in him seemingly losing out to a big jerk who also manages to pin a theft charge on poor Keaton. The movie then gets very weird as a dejected Keaton, after failing to find the man who really committed the theft for which he is blamed, returns to the theater where he falls asleep on the job and we enter into a very bizarre dream sequence within a movie within a movie (Not kidding, it’s like Inception before Inception). Keaton takes on the role of the “World’s greatest detective, the crime crushing criminologist Sherlock Jr.” The movie changes pace entirely now as we watch Keaton live out his fantasies as Sherlock Jr. who plays the suave and sophisticated foil to the blundering, oafish Keaton. The next 20 minutes or so feature Sherlock solving the crime, in what appeared to me far more like a James Bond film than a Holmes tale. In the end, Sherlock gets his man, and by a strange coincidence, Keaton somehow manages to get his man and the girl, without having done anything other than fall asleep at his job. A touching sentiment, I thought.

There were definitely a lot of things I really liked about this movie. It was well acted all around. It was very cleverly written, both from the gags, which were hilarious (more on those further below), and the dialogue and general story. The problem I’ve found with movies such as this one – that is movies without any truly visible plot – is that the characters and context sort of get written out of the movie. Actors like Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, and Buster Keaton got their starts in Vaudeville, and as such, most of their movies are really just their vaudeville acts and gags being transplanted directly to the silver screen. The result is that in movies such as Duck Soup, the characters end up not at all compelling – you never care for their well-being. This is not the case with Sherlock, Jr. You actually find yourself rooting for the characters, you want them to succeed, and you feel sorry for them when they fail. I think, especially for a movie as nonsensical as Sherlock Jr., that is a very impressive feat.

For me the most impressive part of this movie was the gags, and there were quite a lot of them. They ranged from something as simple as Buster slipping and falling repeatedly to things as impressive as Buster undergoing a costume change while jumping through a window or riding a motorcycle on the handlebars. Every one of the gags was expertly pulled off. In this movie I saw my very first banana gag in which the joke was played completely straight and it was simply hilarious. I felt like an oafish cartoon character, pointing and cackling at something as banal as a man slipping and falling on a banana peel, but I couldn’t care less; it was expertly pulled off.

The effects were equally well done. I loved the scene at the beginning of the dream scene where Buster is going through a slew of scenes as something that was once on-screen has since gone away, causing him to fall over. Considering that this movie came out in the early 20s, when film was really just starting to find its identity, the effects in this movie, which only runs in at about 40-50 minutes are just plain spectacular.

My only real problem with this movie was, predictably, the music. Naturally, true to myself, I neglected to note what composition this one was, but as with other silent films I’ve seen, the music is sporadic, overly-modern, and very seldom corresponds to the mood of the particular scene. There was one part where I swear the composer just transposed the James Bond theme to the movie. To say the music was jarring would be putting it very lightly. In spite of this, however, I still found the movie fun, enjoyable, easy to watch, easy to follow, and the zaniness of the gags had me rolling on the floor in very little time.

So why is this movie on the list? I think it’s there because as a movie it is a perfect demonstration of the skill of Buster Keaton, both as an actor and as a director. The pacing in this movie is just superb, it very seldom slows down. The jokes Keaton brings to the movie are classics, and very soon to be cliché and staples of the silver screen. The stunts and special effects, particularly for this time are just spectacular. It has been said that Buster Keaton is the greatest actor-director who ever lived, and seeing both this movie and Our Hospitality, it is clear to see why. The man is a comic genius.

Monday, October 17, 2011

#40 Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality (1923)

It is unfortunate to me that previous to the formation of my list I had never heard of Buster Keaton. I knew of Charlie Chaplin, and had known of him for some time before the formation of my list, all the way back to my Sophomore year in High School when I watched Modern Times in my History class and thought of it as dull and unfunny. But Buster Keaton was a man wholly unknown to me. It wasn’t until I was formulating my list and was talking to my Dad about great movies that he brought my attention to Buster Keaton. However during this time a great many movies were being recommended to me from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Seven Samurai to Gosford Park and No Country for Old Men. Because of this Buster Keaton, owing to the fact that he was recommended to me by my Dad, a man who seems to be constantly recommending me things while my mind is wholly set on doing something else, was put to the back of my mind, and so I have now watched 39 other movies without even giving this great star of silent film a second thought. It was only last month when I was perusing my list for movies to watch that I came upon Buster Keaton, which I must admit, was chosen only because I was starting to realize my movie selections thus far had been fairly top (read: 60s and 70s) heavy. However, now that I have finally gotten my fill of Buster Keaton I am wholly ashamed of my ignorance of Buster Keaton and I am delighted that I finally motivated myself to watch these films. So now here is our first in a double feature of Buster Keaton films, Our Hospitality.

This movie is essentially a play on Romeo and Juliet set in the context of the infamous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys in the early 1800s. It starts out with a prologue: it was a dark and stormy night when a member of the Canfields arrived in Kentucky and immediately left for the rival McKay’s house where he manages to kill the last male heir to the McKay line, but at the same time losing his own life in the process. When the uncle of the Canfield’s receives word of this his once mediatory and peaceful demeanor is changed almost immediately: “my two sons must be taught to avenge his death,” he says. Meanwhile, on the McKay side, a baby boy named Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) is left orphaned and is sent to his last living relatives in New York, where he grows up in peace, comfort, and solitude. This lasts for 20 years until young Willie, now a fully grown young man, receives word that he has inherited his family home in Kentucky, as such, Willie decides to embark on a fancy shmancy train for Kentucky. While on the train, Willie sits next to a gorgeous young woman (Natalie Talmadge), and, after a series of hilariously awkward scenes, the two of them begin to hit it off rather well. After a long series of zany scenes, the train manages to arrive in one piece in Kentucky. The two of them descend from the train, and Willie is invited to dinner, and then the woman meets her family. It is at this point that we see the conflict of this movie – predictably, the girl is the daughter of Joseph Canfield. Eventually Joseph realizes that this young man whom his daughter has invited to dinner is his enemy, as do his two nephews who he has taught to avenge their father’s death. The two nephews stalk their unwitting prey through a number of scenes, but thanks to a number of very narrow escapes, Willie escapes the machinations of the Canfields, unscathed and none the wiser. It is not until Willie arrives at the house of the Canfields for dinner that Willie realizes the great danger which he is in, however he also realizes that so long as he is a guest in the house of the Canfields, the obliged hospitality of the Canfields prevents them from killing him. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse in which the Canfields (minus the girl who is unaware of all this) are trying desperately to get Willie to leave the house, and Willie is doing everything in his power to stay. Eventually the Canfields succeed, and what ensues is a chase scene between Willie and the two nephews and the daughter, who, now wise to what’s been going on, is doing everything she can to save the life of Willie. Eventually both Willie and the daughter end up in a river leading, predictably, to a waterfall. Thankfully Willie’s nimble acrobatics ensure that both Willie and the girl escape the harrowing falls. The defeated Canfields, meanwhile, unsuccessful in their chasing of Willie, return home to find that Willie has married the girl, and that the two of them are now in-laws. The Canfields appear as though they are going to shoot Willie, but Joseph instead embraces his new son-in-law, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The acting in this movie is just superb. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I adore the style of acting that you see in silent films. The idea that you have to be able to emote and convey emotion effectively in motion picture without being able to actually say anything means that the actors are actually emoting – it’s easy to tell how the character feels, and what their desires are. It’s much more flamboyant, but in a good way. The lead in this movie is naturally Buster Keaton and he’s just excellent. He’s funny, but he’s also very likeable. The result is you the audience falling out of your chair in laughter when he’s caught in sticky situations or when he, say, slips on a banana peel, but at the same time you feel sorry for the guy. You really want him to succeed – you want him to get the girl, to reconcile with the Canfields, but at the same time you find yourself looking forward to moments such as when he’s stuck in the Canfield’s house without being able to leave. In general he is just an effective protagonist in general. The female lead, which isn’t actually given a name, is played by Natalie Talmadge, who I’ve since discovered is Buster Keaton’s actual wife. I thought she was absolutely gorgeous in this, and I think once again this goes back to the style of silent film – I love the makeup used on characters, and for Talmadge it really worked. As for her performance, she was compassionate and timid, really too much of a nonentity in this film, in my opinion. I think if anything she is the audience, watching from the sidelines and hoping that nothing ill befalls our hero, but not really doing anything about it. The rest of the Canfields did a good enough job, but I didn’t think any of them were anything spectacular in particular, this movie is primarily about Buster Keaton and in terms of casting and characters this is made abundantly clear.

As for other parts of this movie I was pleasantly surprised. As I mentioned before, I liked the makeup and costuming in this movie. I don’t presume to be an expert on 1830s, but the costumes felt authentic to me and I definitely got the sense that I was in 1830s America. I also liked the props. I remember reading something – I think on IMDB – about how the train used in the movie was actually designed to be as authentic as possible. The cinematography to me seemed to be standard silent film fare, but I quite liked it. My two favorite scenes in this movie were the train scene and the waterfall scene. In particular I loved the train scene. I fear using the phrase “comedic gold” but the train scene just epitomized it for me. It truly was comedy at its most fundamental; there was no story, no context, it was just 10 or 15 minutes of hilarity. I was laughing the whole time. The waterfall scene was great in another way. I love how it starts because you can see it coming, meaning the tension is already there. And then from that point, the way in which the film milks the tension, draws the movie out for as long as possible brings the movie to a boiling point. It was excellently done. There were some other superb scenes in the movie, such as the “cat and mouse” scenes I described earlier and the fishing scene, but truly the two aforementioned scenes stand out most prominently in my mind.

The music, I am delighted to say, was actually really good. This is another thing I mentioned in previous reviews of silent films I’ve done. The problem I’ve noticed, or at least it’s been a problem for me is that since these silent films when they came out were accompanied with live music, when the movies were remastered and put onto DVD or VHS, they had to be rescored. The problem comes in because generally the man doing the rescoring decides, rather than recreating the music as it may have been performed when the movie came out, will instead make an original composition which reeks of modernity. In my experience the rescores feature a lot of marimba, a lot of discordant tones, and music that often doesn’t correspond in any way to the action which is occurring on screen. The result is jarring music which I usually turn off half way through the movie. With Our Hospitality this was not the case. The movie featured a lot more piano and a lot more sounds reminiscent of what one would expect a 1920s era silent film to sound like. The result was rather than getting a lot of jarring noise coming from my speakers which took me out of the mood, I got a score in perfect harmony with the movie. Surprisingly, I actually bothered to write down the writer of the rescore for this movie, so if anyone wants to watch this, I highly recommend you watch this movie with the Hunsburger score.

I think one of the best things I’ve gotten out of this little project of mine is an appreciation for silent films. They are just so cool. I love just how different everything feels. You can really feel his vaudevillian roots coming to the forefront in a number of extended scenes, but at the same time the movies are well written and well paced. This movie was just plain excellent. One of the funniest things I have ever seen. Roger Ebert has called Buster Keaton quite possibly the greatest Actor-Director of all time, and it shows in my list, which has 5 movies by Buster Keaton. This movie in particular is fantastic and in my opinion, easily deserves its place on this list.