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How do you tell a story too shocking to be true?
I remember waching "Amadeus" and thinking that they must have made Mozart more over-the-top than he really was in order for modern audiences to be as shocked by his behavior as his contemporaries would have been. Then I learned more about Mozart and found out that he'd actually been toned down for the movie. The real Mozart wasn't content to just blatantly fart on people at parties; he'd climb onto the table and defecate among the dishes.
In the same vein, "Gosnell" seems too over-the-top to be true, but only scratches the surface of how horrible the reality was. As somebody who has done abortion malpractice research for over 30 years, and who delved deeply into the Gosnell case, I know how sordid reality is and have a hard time judging the film fairly as a result.
As I watched it I became impatient with scenes showing Woody and Lexi having lives beyond the investigation and trial because it ate up time that could have been spent revealing things that were left undisclosed. I tell myself to trust the filmmakers to have made choices about how much people would be able to believe, how much of this unpalatable reality a mainstream audience could be expected to swallow and digest.
Gosell's own defense attorney being the one to drag out of the expert witness exactly how horrifying legitimate abortion practice is probably struck most people as gratuitious prolife grandstanding. But it really happened. Perhaps a scene showing Gosnell's defense team making the decision to draw this out of the witness would have made this clearer and thus made the reality more believable.
Gosnell's ties to legitimate abortion practice were completely ignored. One of the women whose baby's feet ended up in a jar had been referred to Gosnell by a highly reputable National Abortion Federation clinic. The mother of Baby Boy A had sought out care at another highly reputable National Abortion Federation clinic where, it turns out, Gosnell worked one day a week, starting his illegal third-trimester abortions on-site before finishing them on his own premises. A NAF inspector saw how appalling Gosnell's clinic was and contented herself with denying him membership; she did nothing to stop the referrals or have Gosnell fired.
The film didn't touch on the reasons that it took so long to get Karnamaya Mongar into the ambulance. It didn't touch on the psychologist who partnered with Gosnell for the "Mothers' Day Massacre." It breezed past the horriffic death of Semika Shaw. It omitted the degree to which state officials knew how bad Gosnell's clinic was, and the fact that the Grand Jury members wanted charges to be filed against those officials.
My dismay over what was omitted thus leaves me watching Gosnell with a jaded eye. Were the things omitted left out, like Moart's scatological hobbies, because it was just too much to expect the audience to accept? Should Gosnell have been toned down even more to make it more believable, trusting in people to become curious and start Googling the case?
I don't know, just as I don't know why, CSI-style, Gosnell's clinic looked like it was operating in the middle of a blackout or why the props department decided to use obstetric forceps rather than abortion forceps in the courtroom scene. I'll just have to trust that, just as the producers knew how to get the film made and distributed, they knew what they were doing when they made choices every step of the way. And I hope that both prolife and prochoice citizens learn that their pet approaches to protecting women from the Gosnells of the world are not even close to adequate.
Little House on the Prairie (2005)
I couldn't even watch it.
I found LHotP when I was searching YouTube for Laura Ingalls Wilder audiobooks. The very first clip I spotted should have told me everything I needed to know: While Ma's back is turned, Laura deliberately knocks her spoon off the table. Pa also deliberately knocks his spoon off the table. This was an obvious habit between the two of them for Laura asking for a discreet word with Pa, and Pa obliging. As if Pa would have ever gone behind Ma's back for anything! The two of them have a brief, "We understand each other!" moment as they pick up the spoons. Then Ma came to the table, with her clothes and hair all wrong, and clearly Pa was sharing a private joke with Laura at Ma's expense.
Yes, Pa and Laura understood each other in a way that no two other members of the family did, and yes, they had a special bond -- but that fact could have been conveyed in a way that also underscored the respect Charles Ingalls had for his wife, and that both Ingalls parents demanded that the children show to adults in general and their parents in particular.
I jumped around a few other spots and found the non-bulldog Jack and the non-Ma Ma so distracting that I just gave up. Caroline Ingalls was a prim, proper Victorian woman who managed to remain one in the most difficult circumstances. There is no excuse for turning her into a casually-mussed modern woman.
A few more beefs: Where was Carrie? Pa's fiddle? Laura's BROWN hair and her hated sunbonnet? Next up: An episode of The Simpsons in which Homer neither overeats nor drinks beer, Bart doesn't do a single bratty thing, Maggie never takes a single suck of her binky, and Lisa doesn't even own a sax.
I agree with the other reviewers who suggested that as a generic prairie family/Hallmark Channel type thing, this might have worked. But please, take the Ingalls family's names off the thing! That wobble in the earth's orbit is them collectively spinning in their graves.
Pat & Mat (1976)
Somebody's been channeling Buster Keaton
This American was introduced to these Czech characters by her Korean students. It doesn't transcend culture much more than that!
As a die-hard Buster Keaton fan I was hooked in an instant. The relationship between Pat and Mat is as warm, mischievous, and trouble-prone as between the characters Buster created on screen with his mentor, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Pat and Mat are friends and neighbors for whom the most ordinary of tasks, such as opening a can of goulash, trigger cascades of mishaps. Like Keaton, Mat and Pat somehow always manage to land on their feet in the end, even if they never achieve their original goals.
The gags themselves are so purely and perfectly Keatonesque that I feel as if The Great Stone Face himself must have somehow passed a bit of his elfin, tinkering spirit to Lubomir Benes and his team to nurture, play with, and make truly their own. The granddaddy of silent comedy would be proud indeed to see where Pat and Mat have taken the art form, to delightful new heights.
Pat and Mat will entertain adults and children in equal measure, and like Keaton's work, will remain fresh and funny for generations.
The Corpse Vanishes (1942)
The Brain Drain
The central mystery of "The Corpse Vanishes" hinges on who is stealing the corpses of brides who unexpectedly drop dead immediately after saying "I do." The deeper mystery is why the brains of all the characters have vanished.
You would think that with a string of keeled-over brides, the police, or at least the public health officials, would be trying to figure out why a bunch of young, healthy women are kicking the bucket when they should be kissing the groom. Likewise, it seems that this is the angle the newspapers would be investigating. Instead, the focus is on who is stealing the bodies. "The murderer" is the most obvious answer.
Of course, with all these dead brides, one would expect the wedding business to go into a bit of a slump -- or for armed security at weddings to suddenly come into vogue. But no! Weddings go on as usual, with nobody so much as babysitting the corpse to keep it from being misappropriated.
From such a foundation, you can easily imagine how inexplicable the characters' behavior remains throughout. I won't spoil the fun by providing examples, lest you, dear reader, wish to enjoy "The Corpse Vanishes" on MSTTK.
The Beatniks (1960)
No beatniks were harmed in the making of this movie
First, a caveat: There are no actual beatniks in this film. Nary a beret or black turtleneck or bongo to be seen. As for the movie itself, to steal a line from Roger Ebert, "The Beatniks" is transcendently bad. It soars above ordinary badness as the eagle soars above the mosquito.
The plot is a common one of the era: kid from the wrong side of the tracks is spotted by a talent agent, but alas, his crazy friends ruin it all for him. To call the characters two-dimensional is an insult to planar surfaces. To call the plot threadbare is an insult to rags. To call ... Oh, never mind. You get the idea.
The entire production screams, "high school drama club project," though the actors playing the teens are a bit long in the tooth for the youth set, dig it? MST3000 had great fun with it, though, and thus it's worth a watch.
The Encounter (2010)
My verdict? A resounding "Meh."
The premise is intriguing, but from the beginning,this was clearly Hallmark card territory.
We're introduced to some stock characters: the Couple That Have Grown Apart, the Sad But Tough Runway, the Materialistic Businessman, the Woman Who Settles for Less.
Spooky music tells us that something is afoot as the rain pummels them in their cars (except for the runaway, who is hitch-hiking). A washed-out bridge leaves them stranded together in a diner run by none other than Jesus.
Jesus freaks them out by serving only water to drink, but food is another matter. Cue Arlo Guthrie: You can get anything you want at Jesus's restaurant. Jesus knows what you want, both on the plate and out of life. He preaches Joel Olstein Lite. The characters exchange dialog out of a "How To Witness to Unbelievers" comic book.
That's where I lost interest and stopped watching.
Hallmark Channel fans, and readers of "Chicken Soup for the Soul," will probably enjoy this. Those looking for meatier fare won't find it in this diner.
I've read the other reviews, and wonder if there's a "he doth protest too much" element to it. The critics seem to be trying to deny that there's a seedy underbelly to Bangkok -- a laughable task -- or to just be ticked off that somebody else did something so simple and succeeded at it.
The narrator tells us that not everything Pla says can be taken at face value -- that he himself never really got to know her. He just pieced together a story with the footage he took, and did an amazing job. The veracity of the story is one even the filmmaker seems to hesitate to vouch for.
And for those who say, "This isn't the Thailand I saw when I was there!" Well, it wasn't the Thailand I saw, either. I'm not fool enough to think that I know everything about even the town I grew up in, much less a country I saw very briefly. People can only know what's within the realm of their own experience. A filmmaker poked around in a corner and said, "This is what I saw there." If you saw something else, get out your camera and tell your own story.
My Flesh and Blood (2003)
WARNING: This is not the DeBolts
I was on NetFlix and clicked on "My Flesh and Blood", expecting another uplifting story like "Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get 19 Kids?" This is most assuredly not the DeBolts.
Susan Tom is a lonely woman who seeks to fill the emptiness inside her with needy children. And while she's an apt physical caregiver, and seems able to provide a loving home for most of the children, two of them wind up utterly lost: Martha, upon whose slender shoulders Susan piles enormous burdens, and Joe, who struggles to find someplace in the world where he belongs.
Martha, old beyond her 18 years, cries out to her mother for some understanding and is shut up even as she melts down. Joe, who for most of the film had been lashing out in impotent rage at everybody around him, took a quiet moment to express concern for his sister. Rather than nurture this attempt to connect, Susan shut him up. And he shut down. My prayers for Joe throughout the film proved to have come too late as he finally gave up and died, leaving Martha bereft of perhaps the only person in her life who could have understood her profound loneliness.
I still pray for Martha, who may yet find a place in the world where there's room for her. All I can do for Joe is cry.
I'm not sure why this gem has been buried, but I'm glad I discovered it on YouTube.
It takes the form of four slices of Harper family life as we watch the familiar loser Eunice, and her successful brother Phillip, intersect at key points in their lives.
The humor is there, yes, but with a sharp, bitter edge that "The Carol Burnett Show" danced near but never on. "Eunice" slides down that edge and bleeds. The characters are larger than life, with Eunice far more of a bitter failure, and Phillip a far brighter star, than we'd see arising from one family. Still, the dynamics -- and the reality of how our choices make us who we are -- are painfully true to life.
The key interactions aren't between Mama and Eunice. They're between Eunice and Phillip. Carol Burnett brings a depth to the shallow Eunice I'd never seen before, especially in a quiet, dignified standoff with Harvey Korman's opportunistic Ed. Ken Berry's performance is amazing. He makes a sigh or a simple slump of the shoulders hold its own amid the overblown chaos around him. A lot of the credit for that must go to Harvey Korman as director, though, for allowing the camera to capture those small moments.
"Eunice" isn't one to just laugh at and move on. It's one to chew on. This might, really, be why it lay fallow. Nobody quite knew what to make of it, and thought it best, then, to just let it be.
Un homme de têtes (1898)
Georges Melies was a stage magician before turning to film, so it's no surprise that he plays a stage magician. But in his films, Georges does what no stage magician could possibly do.
In "Un homme de tete", Melies repeatedly takes his head off and grows a new one three times, then gets out a banjo and sings a quartet with bodyless selves. The fluidity and aplomb with which he performs is nothing short of remarkable.
While many early films are primarily interesting for their historical value, Melies' transcend mere museum pieces. Like Buster Keaton's silent films, they are timeless and retain their charm -- in this case, well over 100 years later.
L'homme orchestre (1900)
An amazing little short
It's hard to believe that this masterpiece of special effects was filmed in 1900. Georges Melies clones himself six times, transforming into a conductor and six members of an orchestra. The seven of him perform together, then coalesce into the one.
At the time, all special effects work had to be done in the camera by use of shutters, back- cranking, and re-cranking. Melies had to carefully coordinate his actions, timing them perfectly, or the entire shot would be ruined. Kudos are due as well to the cameraman, who had to be metronome-steady in order to make the effect work.
Surely this little film served as inspiration for Buster Keaton's "The Playhouse".
The Ed Wynn Show: Episode #1.12 (1949)
Keaton still had it, even in his 50s
Buster Keaton was never a prima donna. He was a team player, from his earliest days in vaudeville with his family. When we see a Keaton performance, we see what those around him brought out in him. So when we see him in this delightful episode of "The Ed Wynn Show", we see what Ed Wynn brought out in him. And Ed Wynn knew how to tap into Keaton's comic genius.
The premise was simple enough. They set out to recreate Buster Keaton's film debut: the molasses bit from "The Butcher Boy" (1917). But while those of us who are familiar with "The Butcher Boy" will recognize the skeleton of the sketch, Keaton and Wynn put new flesh on it and breathed new life into it. Some of the freshest reworking comes in the way Buster and Ed made fun of the medium of silent films even while paying tribute to them. And the whole bit is funny in itself, and not purely in how it references familiar material.
I won't spoil any of it for you by giving it away. You can find it and watch it -- the entire episode -- at the Internet Archive. The Keaton bit is at the end, the final fifteen minutes. But the early part of the episode is worth watching as well, particularly for what Wynn did with his sponsor -- Spiedel watch bands -- and a pair of ballet dancers.
Bridge Wives (1932)
A cartoonishly funny short
Al St. John, of the Arbuckle/Keaton/St. John Comique trio, stars in this little talkie short, directed by his famous uncle. (Arbuckle was working under the pseudonym "William Goodrich" during his blacklisted period following the Virginia Rappe scandal.)
St. John plays the harried husband of a fanatical tournament bridge player. He's already close to snapping as the three month long tournament comes to an end. When the judge declares a tie and launches another three-month tournament, Al explodes in a hilarious frenzy.
The pacing and directing are surprisingly artful for a what's essentially a throwaway film. Al is so over-the-top, but amusingly so, that it's like watching a cartoon played out by living human beings. I'd love to see more of what Al St. John did at Educational films after this little treasure.
The General (1926)
Fall in love
I first encountered Buster Keaton in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Reviewers made frequent reference to his status as a "silent film great", but I paid no mind. To me, silent films were Chaplin, and Chaplin leaves me cold. And thus, in my mind, silent film buffs were arty snots who feigned interest in quaint old things to show how sophisticated they were. Nobody, I thought, could really like that stuff.
But I joined Netflix, and their little recommendation system suggested "The General". The picture of Buster Keaton atop a locomotive promised some action. The guy had been funny in "Forum". I could stream it, effectively for free, as a bonus while awaiting my next DVD. What did I have to lose?
Aside from my preconceptions, that is.
Within fifteen seconds I totally forgot that I was watching one of those classic silent films. I was totally engrossed in letting Buster tell me a story. And as the film progressed, I moved from rapt interest to amusement to amazement to -- well, to something akin to falling in love. I would never see silent film -- or, of course, silent film buffs -- the same way again.
Keaton's Johnnie Gray is an earnest, conscientious, courteous little fellow who gets undeservedly emasculated: He's rejected by the Confederate army (because he's more valuable on the railroad), and by his girl and her family. And it is in Johnie's low moment that we first see how Keaton handles his films: a death-defying stunt, in which Buster rides the connecting rod of an antique narrow-gauge locomotive -- isn't played as a stunt. It's played as subtle, poignant humor, with Johnnie's beloved General comforting him by rocking him gently like a mother rocking her baby.
A year later, a sad and forsaken Johnnie still tends his train. His girl, Annabelle Lee, is about to board, heading off to tend to her wounded father. She still loves Johnnie -- else why would she go to the trouble of taunting him with her brother's war ribbons while pretending to ignore him? Johnnie, silent and subdued, watches with his haunted eyes.
But Union spies steal Johnny's beloved General -- with Annabelle Lee aboard. Johnnie takes off in pursuit, undaunted by any obstacle. He wins our admiration and sympathy not because he's asking for them; he's too busy recovering his train, his girl, and his honor. He wins us over because he's who he is: brave, resourceful, and dogged in pursuit of his goal.
The things he does in that pursuit take your breath away. Suffice it to say he gets hold of another train, and does things aboard as it speeds along, as nonchalantly as you might reach for a light switch. A moment that stands out for me -- neglected by other commentators -- finds Buster casually riding along on the cowcatcher, picking splinters out of his hands, until he notices an uncoupled boxcar hindering his progress. How he deals with the recalcitrant boxcar has to be seen to be appreciated. And there are countless such moments throughout this gem of a film.
As the chase transitions, with Union officers chasing Johnnie as he heads home with his prizes, we begin to see why Johnnie loves Annabelle Lee. She's out of her element, but proves brave and resourceful and eager to help, for all her foolish moments. She never apologizes to Johnnie for misjudging him, but he never asks her to. She simply recognizes him at last for who he was all along, and shares his joy when the Confederate Army does the same.
If you've never seen a silent film, or seen others but wondered what all the fuss is about, take a chance on Keaton. And you can't do better than "The General". You may find yourself becoming one of the inexplicable silent film buffs.
Mooching Through Georgia (1939)
A fun Keatonesque romp
I hadn't expected to really enjoy any of the Columbia shorts, but I found this one delightful. No, it's not "The General". Nobody ever handed the reins back over to Buster after Joe Schenck put them in the hands of Louis B. Mayor, so never again would we see what Buster would produce if allowed to just be Buster. But with "Mooching Through Georgia", we get a peek at what could have been. We get as close as Buster -- and Clyde Bruckman -- could get us.
In case Bruckman's name isn't familiar, he's the man who gave Buster a copy of "The Great Locomotive Chase" -- the book that inspired Keaton to film "The General". Bruckman co- wrote and co-directed "The General" with Keaton. The two men worked together quite a bit on some of Keaton's greatest silent works. And even hamstrung by a tight budget and an even tighter shooting schedule, Bruckman and Keaton let the old chemistry shine through in "Mooching Through Georgia".
"Mooching Through Georgia" doesn't even take place in Georgia -- it's set in Kentucky, no doubt via the pen of Bruckman, who was a Civil War buff and knew his setting. It was in Kentucky that you were most likely to find brothers enlisting on opposing sides of the war, and opposing armies passing through one after the other.
And from that very beginning, "Mooching" sets itself apart from the other Columbia shorts. "Mooching" doesn't rely on a totally ludicrous premise and characters so brainless it's a wonder they can tie their own shoes. Buster Keaton and Monte Collins play brothers Homer and Cyrus Cobb, who -- perhaps inadvertently -- enlist on opposite sides of the Civil War, and spend the entire movie keeping each other from being shot as spies. Thus Bruckman takes a very possible scenario, giving his characters human motives rather than cartoonish ones, so even when things get silly, the viewer can still see Homer and Cyrus as people they can relate to and root for.
Keaton doesn't get as much of a chance as we'd like to cut loose, but he does get some fine, understated moments, and an over-the top "death scene" that pokes fun once more of the overacted melodramas Buster gave the world a respite from. The gags are nicely done, and spring from the plot in keeping with a true Keaton film. All in all, "Mooching" is a breath of freshness in the otherwise stale Columbia air, and I'm glad Bruckman and Keaton managed to pull it together one last time.
Sadly, Bruckman's drinking had picked up where Keaton's left off, and the quality of his work deteriorated -- as is clearly documented in the deteriorating quality of the Columbia shorts Bruckman worked on. And unlike Keaton, who managed to reverse the downward spiral, Bruckman was unable to pull out of the tailspin, eventually borrowing a gun from Keaton and using it to shoot himself. A sad ending to a very talented man.
General Nuisance (1941)
Even worse than "Free and Easy"
I hadn't thought it possible for anybody to put Buster Keaton into a film more inane and humiliating than "Free and Easy", but I stand corrected. I had to force myself to sit through this dreary dreck, in the mostly vain hope that Keaton would sooner or later give me something worth watching.
That one thing worth watching does show up in the middle of an otherwise grim song-and-dance routine with Elsie Ames. Alas, the moment ends quickly, and we're back to Buster playing somebody so clueless he makes Rain Man look as canny as a Mafia don.
I can't fathom what it is about this film that makes people pick it out as one of the better (or perhaps less dismal) of the Columbia shorts. "Mooching Through Georgia" is actually fun, and "She's Oil Mine" and "The Taming of the Snood" are the others most likely to give Keaton fans something they can watch without being embarrassed for Buster. This one left a bad taste in my mouth.
I would guess that the dividing line between those who find it palatable and those who find it more of a cinematic emetic would be whether or not the viewer enjoys Three Stooges comedy. If you do, you'll probably like "General Nuisance". If not, spare yourself the ordeal.
The Taming of the Snood (1940)
Contains a Nugget of Gold
Though others pick on Elsie Ames (as did Keaton's wife, Eleanor), I side with Buster on this one: Cut her a break; she knew how to take a fall. In a way, her over-the-top and obnoxious performance serves as a foil to the understated Keaton. I think that it actually works in "Snood", with Buster treating Elsie as a piece of the world run amok that he has to cope with. And physically she was capable of keeping up with him, something she deserves full credit for.
"The Taming of the Snood" was supposed to center around Keaton's failing hat shop, but Keaton and Ames improvised so much in the drunken maid scene that something else had to go. What went was the hat shop plot, which got shortened into a brief vignette and enough of a setup to explain why Buster ended up in the apartment with the jewel thief.
It's once Buster is in the apartment with Elise that the reins are handed over. With nimble dancer Elsie and the traditional Three Keatons prop of a nice, sturdy table, Buster recreates for us on screen much of what must have been his bread-and-butter during his vaudeville years. Here is our nugget of pure Keaton gold.
Though the film is silly and full of absurd impossibilities (such as the way Keaton falls out a window, and keeps getting dropped lower and lower, only to fall one more time and somehow end up back in the original apartment), the director allowed Keaton some opportunities to really be a Keaton character -- the plucky, stoic little man who manages to triumph even though the world is spinning out of control around him.
The Coward (1915)
Interesting rather than enjoyable
I watched "The Coward" because, as a huge Buster Keaton fan, I wanted to see a movie he'd likely been spoofing bits of in "The General". I don't know how it looked to audiences of 1915, but to a modern audience, "The Coward" often looks like a spoof itself.
Charles Ray portrays Frank Winslow, the stately and handsome son of proud former Colonel Jefferson Beverly Winslow (Frank Keenan). The Colonel is an amiable enough husband, showing his wife genuine affection, but he's a steadfast old soldier as well, with no patience for those who don't eagerly rush off to battle. Frank, more a lover than a fighter, is scared witless at the idea of being cannon fodder. He tries to screw up the courage to enlist, like everyone else is gaily doing, but his nerve fails him and he goes home, confessing his fear to his white-haired mother. Dear old Dad considers this such a blow to the family honor that he pulls out a pistol and makes it pretty plain to Frank that the alternative to being shot at by Yankees on the battlefield is being plugged between the eyes by his father at home.
To say the acting is overblown is understatement. Dad's reactions to his son look more like symptoms of neurological problems than they resemble human emotion -- alternating between clenched-teeth catatonia and a sort of standing petit-mal seizure. If he was a dog, you'd shoot him.
It's fun to see the bits Keaton played with in "The General" -- the enlistment office scene, tossing away the picture of the disgraced young 'un, hiding under the tablecloth, stealing a uniform to sneak past the enemy. It's worth watching for that alone. And some of the affectionate moments between the Colonel and his wife were refreshing. But I'd not give it a second viewing.
Jail Bait (1937)
A few good moments, but mostly pretty dull
There are a few shining moments in "Jail Bait", in which Buster Keaton treats us to some of his physical magic. Overall, however, "Jail Bait" serves as yet another example of a talkie written, produced, and directed by people who clearly didn't grasp the naiveté and innocence of a genuine Keaton character. They instead produced a mawkish simpleton. He possesses no traits to endear him to us -- no pluck, no wit, no perseverance. His only motive -- love for a girl who clearly doesn't even know he exists -- only underscores the fact that he's clueless, dimwitted, and oblivious. And unlike a real Keaton character, who triumphs due to his own persistence and ingenuity, the hapless hero of "Jail Bait" succeeds only through sheer dumb luck and a touch of deus ex machina.
"Jail Bait" isn't as painful to watch as "Free and Easy", which left me unsure which I wanted to do more, cry or vomit. But it's not a pleasure, either.
The Railrodder (1965)
A delightful little film
Somebody charged with making a travel film to advertise the beauties of Canada had a stroke of pure genius: Send Buster Keaton cruising silently across it on a motorized railcar.
Though the film isn't technically a silent film (there are both sound effects and a soundtrack), it's still a silent film in style and feel. Keaton, though far past the vigor of his youth (in fact dying of cancer), shows that he still has his same plucky, imperturbable aplomb.
Sitting by the Thames, Buster's unnamed character sees a full-page newspaper ad that commands him, "Visit Canada now!" Ever one to take up a challenge, Buster leaps into the river to emerge, sodden but undeterred, in Nova Scotia. There, he undertakes a mechanized magic carpet ride through the magnificent Canadian landscape, with all of his needs miraculously attended to by the bottomless toolbox.
Even those unfamiliar with Keaton's silent work will enjoy this charming little movie. Keaton aficionados, however, will be absolutely delighted, spotting one nod after the other to his independent masterpieces, each given a new life by the master himself. And Kudos to the NFB for doing what MGM didn't -- for letting Keaton be Keaton, and giving him the means to leave one more gift to his fans.
Chasing Choo Choos (1927)
Holy cow! This guy is like Keaton on steroids!
Think of this more as an action film than a comedy, and you'll be right on the money. There are funny moments, but it's mostly a suspenseful, high-risk chase with just enough exposition to establish who the characters are and why Monty will risk his life to save the girl -- and enough to make you root for Monty and want him to come out of it all unscathed.
I don't like Monty Banks' acting style nearly as much as I do Buster Keaton's, but his stunts are even more breathtaking and daring. This little film had my heart in my throat! It's well worth a watch, and more than enough to send me scrambling to find out if this was a fluke, or if all of Banks' work is as exciting.
The Saphead (1920)
Forgettable except for Buster
This isn't a Keaton film, or even a Keaton vehicle. Nevertheless, Buster Keaton is the only thing that makes this sappy little melodramatic comedy memorable. The slowly-paced early part of the film even offers a rare treat for the Keaton fan -- Buster smiles, just faintly, twice. (It's a nice departure from the mugging grins and laughs he did in the Arbuckle shorts.) And at the very end comes a real treat. Buster cuts loose on the floor of the Stock Exchange, tackling brokers left and right. In one priceless shot, he takes a flying dive between a man's legs and brings him down in a move that will have you reaching for the remote to watch again in slow motion.
Overall, it's a pleasant enough film, and short enough to be worth watching for the moments Buster provides.
Free and Easy (1930)
Dismal and degrading
I only watched "Free and Easy" out of the same kind of morbid curiosity that makes people slow down to gape at car wrecks. And it is indeed a wreck -- the wreck of Buster Keaton's career.
Buster Keaton liked to take a strong beginning and ending and let the middle work itself out as he and his crew played with the sets and props. "Free and Easy" provides a premise Buster could have worked with: Bungling hayseed Elmer Butz is assigned to manage the Hollywood career of hopeful prairie blossom Miss Gopher City (a girl he secretly loves), but she is actually an unassuming and modest maiden being pushed by her battle-axe of a stage mother. The ending -- in which Buster gets a Hollywood contract but loses the girl -- was a departure from typical Keaton, but as we saw in "Cops," losing the girl was something Keaton could twist into a dark, shuddering laugh. There was plenty there for Keaton to work with. It's a shame nobody let him.
At every turn, the Keaton fan sees missed opportunities, starting with the opening scene in which Elmer ends up on the caboose of a train. Only in the perverse machinations of the MGM system could Buster Keaton + Train = Zilch. It's like presenting Chico Marx with a piano but not letting him touch a single key. MGM didn't even milk Keaton + Train - Stunts = Zilch for the irony. It's as if they were totally unaware that Buster had ever done a thing with trains in his entire career.
The chase -- which critics inexplicably single out as somehow a bit of gold this celluloid junk heap -- falls totally flat. MGM never really allows Keaton to run, dodge, or leap. The guard who is chasing him, in fact, gets the two most vivid physical moments. The idea of Buster Keaton being pursued through a movie studio was ripe with possibilities, but instead each of the scenes he stumbles into is over-elaborately set up when an economy of set-up would have been funnier, completely breaking the rhythm and pace of what could have been an exciting, exhilarating romp in Buster's able hands.
Then there's the matter of Buster himself. Not only is his nimble, athletic body not put to much use, it's obscured in padded tights and enormous clown pants. Though Buster dances adeptly in the contrived musical scene, the costume obscures and upstages his performance. In another move that leaves the viewer wondering if anybody at MGM had actually watched Buster's silent work, his richly but subtly expressive face is obscured with bizarre makeup, effectively obliterating his large, soulful eyes right at the most potentially poignant part of the entire film, in which he inadvertently delivers the girl he loves into the arms of his rival.
Keaton manages to slip in a few tiny moments -- catching his hat behind his back when it falls off, skidding to a bemused stop when he momentarily shakes his pursuers -- but virtually every other possibility slips by unexploited. The mind boggles at the sheer scale of the gap between what MGM made and what Keaton could have done with the same raw material.
The finale involves turning Keaton into an enormous clown puppet, jerked about by thick, unbreakable strings. As biographer Edward McPherson noted, "the story concerns a man who goes to MGM, is made into a misunderstood clown, then has his heart broken." "Free and Easy" could serve as a tragic metaphorical documentary about Keaton's career.
Speak Easily (1932)
Watching "Speak Easily" is painful for fans of Buster Keaton. Seeing such a phenomenal writer, actor, comic, director, and stunt man subjected to this humiliating spectacle is like seeing a Picasso used as a drop cloth, or perhaps more like seeing the finest Camembert adulterated with whey solids and processed into Cheez-Whiz.
Keaton is ill-cast as Professor Post, whose overblown vocabulary is the only thing keeping him from saying, "Tell me about the rabbits, George." (Post would have said something like, "Kindly inform me as to the status of the small mammals in the family Leporidae of the order Lagomorpha, kind sir, who I believe is primarily addressed with the epithet 'George'.") When Keaton created his own characters, they might be situationally clueless but they weren't stupid. They were quick studies and became masters of their worlds. Not so with Post, who never stops stumbling and bumbling and who who has no more control of his destiny than a bilge rat had of the Titanic. And while Keaton's original characters had a charming naiveté and innocence, Post comes across as such a profound sexual retardate that if he ever did become physically aroused, he'd put an ice bag on the swelling and seek medical help.
There are a couple of small, redeeming moments, such as Keaton's attempts to get rid of the vampish Thema Todd or his suggestion as to appropriate attire for a Greek dance, but it's just not worth enduring the entire film to see them.
If you're a fan of bad movies, get drunk and watch "Speak Easily" with friends, a la "Mystery Science Theater 3000". But other than that, stick with the silents. Let them be 100% of what Buster Keaton is remembered for.
Go West (1925)
A surprising treasure
Though it's not a masterwork like "The General", "Go West" perhaps has more heart than any other Keaton film.
"Friendless" Buster, after being literally downtrodden in the big city, heads West, where he finds friendship in the most unlikely of leading ladies: an equally forsaken little cow named Brown Eyes. Keaton manages to make this implausible relationship believable, which it has to be, since the logic of the film hinges on it. Pulling off this cinematic magic displays a new and surprising side of Keaton's virtuosity as an actor and director.
I'd not recommend "Go West" as a starter film for those not already familiar with Buster Keaton, but it's a delightful, poignant and funny piece of work.