The Circus (1928, Charles Chaplin)

The Circus has a melancholic tone it doesn’t need and one director Chaplin is never fully invested in. The first half of the film is a series of fantastic gags–well, except the stuff with ring master Al Ernest Garcia being abusive to his daughter, played by Merna Kennedy. But the rest of it is hilarious. Chaplin, as the tramp, bumbles his way into the circus and the audience’s heart (while all the regular acts flop).

Chaplin’s gags are careful and deliberate–there’s a great mirror maze one and the circus act stuff is hilarious. It seems the tramp can’t figure out how to make the audience laugh when he’s trying to do so, only when he’s a bumbler. And he’s unaware of it.

Until around halfway, when Kennedy lets him in on the secret and he gets some bravado. That bravado leads to a decent sequence when he’s full of himself, but he immediately loses it because Harry Crocker shows up (in the late second act) to make a love triangle with Kennedy.

Now, Kennedy never has much of a character, but her friendship with Chaplin’s much better than her romantic interest in Crocker. Chaplin, as director and writer, is invested in the former. The latter is just for melodramatic purposes. Even if the first half does feel like a series of vignettes, they’re fabulous vignettes. The rest of the film is just Chaplin working for that melancholy.

It’s a shame the energy doesn’t maintain throughout the entire film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written, edited, directed and produced by Charles Chaplin; director of photography, Roland Totheroh; released by United Artists.

Starring Al Ernest Garcia (The Circus Proprietor and Ring Master), Merna Kennedy (His Step-Daughter – A Circus Rider), Harry Crocker (Rex – A Tight Rope Walker), George Davis (A Magician), Henry Bergman (An Old Clown), Tiny Sandford (The Head Property Man), John Rand (An Assistant Property Man), Steve Murphy (A Pickpocket) and Charles Chaplin (A Tramp).

[Stop Button Lists] Siskel’s Ten Best of 1980

The Ten Best Films of 1980, Gene Siskel

source: The Chicago Tribune

  1. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
  2. Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)
  3. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980, Michael Apted)
  4. The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978, Ermanno Olmi)
  5. Kagemusha (1980, Kurosawa Akira)
  6. Being There (1980, Michael Apted)
  7. The Black Stallion (1979, Carroll Ballard)
  8. The Blues Brothers (1980, John Landis)
  9. The Great Santini (1979, Lewis John Carlino)
  10. The Stunt Man (1980, Richard Rush)

For my first Lists post, I wanted to be able to do a top ten from 1978. But I don’t think I’ve seen enough top ten list films from seventy-eight. Since this post is the first of a weekly series, I had to figure out the constraint. Three hundred and fifty words seems about right for the length, but how many of the top ten should I have seen before it’s a good topic.

Based on Gene Siskel’s 1980 top ten list, the familiarity level is going to be set to seven. Seven films out of the list, which will usually be ten but every once in a while the critics just loved to thrown in an eleventh to show people they were rebels.

Gene Siskel’s 1980 ten best film list. Probably from the Tempo section of the Chicago Tribune.

I have not seen Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Tree of Wooden Clogs or The Great Santini. If I’ve ever heard of Wooden Clogs, I have forgotten. The other two I just never thought I really had to see, though Coal Miner’s Daughter seems like one I probably ought to get around to seeing.

The rest of Siskel’s list–with a couple exceptions, of course–is fairly “safe.” “Safe” gets the quotation marks because when you look at the list, it’s clear 1980 was a great year for good Hollywood movies. Raging Bull is a fantastic film and a classic bit of filmmaking at this point. But it’s a safe pick. Ditto Ordinary People, which hasn’t become a classic because the novel being mandatory reading has hurt its chances with an entire generation at least. And it’s dumb, because Ordinary People is a great film. Whatever happened to Robert Redford as a director. It’s so strange.

Being There is almost an odd choice, but it’s probably confirmation bias. I know by the mid-nineties, very few people under the age of thirty talked about Being There. It didn’t become a classic–though it’s definitely been rediscovered. I saw it after my first stint at the video store; my co-workers were all older and recommended the exciting films of their (1970s) youths. I think I bought Being There on DVD, but I know the last time I watched it, I didn’t love it. Of course, it’s been about thirteen years. Definitely due for another look.

Kagemusha isn’t the best Kurosawa but I guess if Siskel wants to get people to enjoy a foreign film, it’s not a bad one to go with. Of course, I grew up thinking of Kurosawa doing those costumed epics, never realizing (until undergrad) he did so much with the post-war setting too. Growing up, I heard about Kurosawa a lot. Probably because I watched “Siskel & Ebert.”

Now, The Stunt Man is a bit of a surprise. It’s a great film, no doubt, but I thought it was unappreciated at the time. I could be completely wrong about it–I first discovered the film because of Leonard Maltin’s review of Color of Night (the Bruce Willis Basic Instinct knock-off); Maltin was shocked it was Richard Rush’s first film since Stunt Man. I used to go through Maltin every new edition for all the new movie reviews. It was so exciting because you might see the newspaper reviews, might see the TV reviews, but you had to wait for the guide for Maltin’s rating.

At the time–when I was eleven to sixteen or seventeen–it never occurred to me other people were not as interested in those “new Maltin ratings.” I was unimaginably popular in high school, if you hadn’t guessed.

Okay, if this post is going to set the standard for future ones, 500 words aren’t going to be enough. My bad. Tangents.

The last two films on Siskel’s 1980 list I’ve seen are the two peculiar ones. The first, The Black Stallion, was a very popular film at the time with kids. Like four and five year olds. I know we saw the sequel in the theater and I had a viewfinder of the first one. When I went back to it in college–on the probably 4:3 MGM DVD–the film blew me away. I watched it my freshman year and thought it was absolutely amazing. The next time I saw it, a few years later, I don’t remember being as enthused. Impressed, yes, but not as rabidly. I used to think some of it was homesickness manifesting through sentimentality towards films of my childhood because of other films I saw during this period and later didn’t find as good, but I think those second viewings all came during a period of too much cynicism.

I own the blu-ray of Black Stallion. I really need to watch it again.

And it’s the kind of addition I always liked about Siskel. I just had this impression of him liking a certain type of muted but enthusiastic lyricism.

The final list item, however, is not one of the things I always liked about Siskel. Quite the opposite. The Blues Brothers. The Blues Brothers does not belong on a top ten film list. Siskel including it in some kind of reality distortion haze; growing up in the Chicago area, The Blues Brothers had a mythic reputation. When you heard people talk about it, you’d think they were fourteen year-olds talking about the space warp in 2001. Again, another sign of high school popularity… Kubrick analysis.

But they weren’t fourteen year-olds talking about 2001, they were grown men talking about The Blues Brothers. And kids acted like seeing The Blues Brothers meant you were cool enough to drive a car or drink a beer. It’s a horrendous motion picture. But I think if you’re in Chicago, you’re brainwashed into lionizing it. I saw it at the Radio City Music Hall film festival one year (for the first time); just awful. Then we watched it for Alan Smithee Podcast and, guess what, just as awful. If not more so. Whenever Siskel & Ebert bent over backwards to praise something filmed in Chicago, you could just see the social graft at work.

But, frankly, I always forgave Siskel for it. Because Ebert used it to inflate his own ego; Siskel turned it back on the community with his Bulls enthusiasm. Siskel embraced popular Chicago culture while staying above it. I remember arguing about it with co-worker at the video store (it’s unbelievable we all cared about this subject, but we did–I feel like growing up thinking about movie criticism is a Chicago thing, because you had the two giants in opposing newspapers). Actually, wait. Chicago loves having two of something and riling their fans into conflict.

This co-worker used to complain Siskel hadn’t even wanted to be a movie critic; he wanted to write about sports. It wasn’t until college I realized having that much range in initial interest was a good thing. It meant Siskel was a deliberate critic. Even when his arguments are malarky, they’re thoughtful malarky.

empire-strikes-back

The only surprise of this 1980 list? Off the top of my head? The Empire Strikes Back. I thought Siskel was gagga over the Star Wars. Maybe I’m wrong.

I didn’t read any of Siskel’s reasoning for his choices. Back when I would have been excited to read this list–not when I was two, but in my teens, I would’ve consumed and regurgitated Siskel’s ideas I liked and probably kept the dissenting ones around for discussions. For the purposes of these list responses, I don’t think reading the list maker’s explanation would be a helpful idea. It does make me wish I’d taken notes on Siskel’s column publication info, but no such luck.

The purpose of these responses is not to regurgitate the critic’s ideas (or even to convey them). Instead, if there is a general purpose, it’s to evaluate the legacy of the listed films.

It won’t just be Siskel; it’ll probably even be Ebert someday. Some New York Times, some best picture nominees, box office results, even Criterion collection “runs.” The requirement? I’ve seen seventy percent.

Every Thursday. Though I have no idea what next week’s list will be. Hopefully something good. I’ll also have to figure out lengths; 1,400 words is a little long for a weekly feature. Maybe this post is the double-sized pilot.

The ‘High Sign’ (1921, Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)

The ‘High Sign’ starts innocuously enough. Leading man Buster Keaton is out of work and answers a want ad to be a clerk at a shooting range. Maybe the tone of the short can be determined from Keaton stealing a cop’s gun to practice, because things don’t stay innocuous for long.

In addition to the range–which affords directors Keaton and Cline two different sequences (one with Keaton acting, one with Keaton reacting)–there’s eventually an elaborate home invasion sequence, with Keaton fighting off the bad guys to protect Bartine Burkett and her father.

Of course, the bad guys hired Keaton to assassinate the father. It’s a lot of brisk storytelling.

There are a handful of lovely cinematic flourishes, but mostly it’s just a good slapstick outing for Keaton. He’s got a wonderful nemesis in the giant Ingram B. Pickett.

Small or (relatively) large, all Keaton and Cline’s gags work.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lesley.

Starring Buster Keaton (Our Hero), Bartine Burkett (Miss Nickelnurser) and Ingram B. Pickett (Tiny Tim).

Drunken Angel (1948, Kurosawa Akira)

Drunken Angel never hides its sentimentality. The film’s protagonist, an alcoholic doctor working in a slum (Shimura Takashi in a glorious performance), is well aware of his sentimentality. He resents it–Shimura has these great yelling and throwing scenes–but it’s what keeps him going. It also allows director Kurosawa to have intensely sentimental sequences without affecting the tone of the film–sometimes it’s in Hayasaka Fumio’s score, sometimes it’s just how Kurosawa and Kôno Akikazu cut a sequence.

The film’s story has Shimura getting a new patient–Mifune Toshirô’s erratic (similarly hard-drinking) Yakuza neighborhood boss. The two fight, often physically, but form a bond–Mifune’s all subtlety, Shimura’s all noise. When their volumes reverse is when Kurosawa and co-writer Uekusa Keinosuke get in some fantastic character work. Of course, the actors are essential to it. Both of them become clearer and clearer as the film progresses. Even though Drunken Angel has an epical arc to it, it’s very much a character study.

It’s also a setting study–Shimura’s practice is on the edge of a garbage swamp in the slum, Mifune’s favorite night club is just blocks away. In a relatively short run time (under 100 minutes), Kurosawa and Uekusa introduce a large supporting cast, establishing them usually in a few seconds, usually without much dialogue.

As the epical arc goes along its track, the film moves over to Mifune, sort of reintroducing him (without Shimura’s judgment). It’s beautifully executed, as is everything else in the film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Uekusa Keinosuke and Kurosawa; director of photography, Itô Takeo; edited by Kôno Akikazu; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Motoki Sôjirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Shimura Takashi (Sanada), Mifune Toshirô (Matsunaga), Yamamoto Reizaburô (Okada), Kogure Michiyo (Nanae), Nakakita Chieko (Miyo), Shindô Eitarô (Takahama), Sengoku Noriko (Gin), Kasagi Shizuko (Singer), Shimizu Masao (Oyabun) and Kuga Yoshiko (Schoolgirl).

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