Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Abominable Dr Phibes

1971, UK/USA, directed by Robert Fuest

Well outside my usual viewing parameters -- camp 1970s horror is an almost undiscovered country for me, though the memory banks were stirred by vague evocations of late-night, somewhat illicit, adolescent viewings of films along these general lines on TV. I suspect, though, that I mostly dipped in and out of whatever was playing. Here, the horror itself is only rarely horrific, and the whole thing is played with a smirk never far away, particularly when it comes to the policemen charged with investigating a series of outlandish murders. As much as it's nice to have actors like Vincent Price and Joseph Cotten on hand, the real fun here is in the spectacular sets and Robert Fuest's zesty orchestration -- at times, it's like watching a madcap Madame Tussaud's diorama come to life.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Little Mermaid

1989, US, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

I suspect that 2014 is the year when there will be a significant increase in children's fare in this space: Shay now has the attention span to watch shorter features, sometimes chopped in two, and on those evenings when everyone is a little frazzled, 45 minutes together on the couch is quite a welcome respite. We watch virtually everything with him rather than leaving him to his own devices so I figure I might as well choose something with a decent advance reputation: I'd never seen this Disney entry, which marked a revival in the company's animated fortunes, although it lacks the all-star vocal talent that's characteristic of 1990s output like Aladdin and Toy Story. Shay was quite alarmed at the sea witch scenes -- no great surprise, since they are spookily atmospheric and sometimes quite abstract, with a Miyazaki vibe as much as a Disney sensibility, particularly the artwork of the witch herself. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Go West

1925, US, directed by Buster Keaton

Brilliant stuff. Keaton's character is frequently mystified by the vicissitudes of technology but the joke here is he's equally confused when faced with more traditional challenges -- riding a horse, milking a cow, and so forth. The milking scene is one of my favourites in all of Keaton's work, absurd and filled with tiny details, like the repeated attempts to offer the cow a three-legged stool as Keaton's character labours under the misapprehension that the object is for the cow's comfort rather than his own, or the almost casual manner in which he flicks at the unfortunate animal's udder in the hopes that she will supply her milk.

Along the way, of course, he does acquire a certain competence -- he mixes his shaving cream with a few drops of expertly-extracted milk -- and even gets the upper hand over a card sharp, at least for a time. In that, his character surely influenced some famously beleagured cartoon characters like Tom the cat, almost always the loser except for those exquisitely pleasurable moments when he finally gets something to go his way. The long sequence late on when he leads hundreds of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles echoes the bridal stampede of Seven Chances, released earlier the same year, making said maidens even more animalistic in retrospect, and increasing the sense that Keaton's character regarded the women with fear more than anything else.

Even in the midst of the chaos, though, there are calm moments, none more striking than the brief sequence when Keaton stops to watch a young black man demonstrate his dance steps; his audience has disappeared as the cattle race down a nearby street but the man keeps moving, enjoying his own skill and absorbed in the moment before he finally realizes there's a problem. 

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Three Ages

1923, US, directed by Buster Keaton

Keaton apparently commented that Three Ages was essentially three two-reel films spliced together, although the repetition of certain scenarios in different contexts -- the prehistoric era, Ancient Rome, the 1920s -- is central to the film's effect. The biggest problem is one of quality control: while all three eras have their share of gags, the modern sequence is by far the most polished, with the most spectacular and memorable stuntwork (the football game, the leaps from tall buildings), and each time the action switches back in time I found myself getting antsy, particularly once the intention to repeat each theme became clear. The jokes in the earlier sequences also seem a good deal more obvious at times, almost lazy by Keaton's meticulous standards at times, although that perhaps marks the transition from shorter work to feature films.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Seven Chances

1925, US, directed by Buster Keaton

Almost like two different films welded together -- the first an often very subtle romantic farce, the second an all-out chase sequence that seeks constantly to top itself -- Seven Chances again showcases the range of Keaton's talent: compare, for instance, the brief early sequence where he completes a marriage proposal by casually throwing a card to a woman seated in a gallery only to have the pieces flutter back down to him, to the epic, occasionally injury-defying, plunge down a steep hill as Keaton is threatened by rolling boulders and furious maids. It's not clear which of these is more terrifying to Keaton: he seems more adept at handling any physical harm. What makes the film more troubling, though, is the vein of race humour that sits very uncomfortably now -- while it's possible to construct some narrative around each of the individual incidents involving a black character as though to absolve Keaton the director, in the aggregate it's hard to see them as anything other than unpleasant even if perhaps only too characteristic of their time. Far more difficult to explain away, though, is the use of blackface by white performers; Keaton seems to have been a particular aficionado of the genre, at least based on his interviews.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Our Hospitality

1923, US, directed by John G. Blystone & Buster Keaton

It's only Keaton's second feature film behind the camera  -- though he shares the credit here -- but Our Hospitality is a fine example of the range of both Keaton's talent and his targets, marrying the expected thrills and comic spills with some fine satire of the mores of the American South. Like many of his films, the film starts relatively slowly only to build to a tremendous climax in terms of both scale and drama, and it would be easy to forget how subtle a performer (and director) Keaton was: watch his hands, for instance, as they reveal his character's inner turmoil, as though they've taken up the emotion often absent from his face. Of course, Keaton doesn't save all of the good stuff for the finale: there's a hilarious sequence early on involving an absurd train journey, which must have caused considerable whiplash for the performers involved (as befits a little boy fascinated by machinery, Shay found this section particularly funny, and he was thrilled by the finale, too).


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States