Category Archives: Highly Recommended

Hard Luck (1921, Edward F. Kline and Buster Keaton)

Hard Luck starts as a… failed suicide attempt comedy. Nothing morbid, just absurd and slapstick. And a little dumb. Star, director, and writer Keaton always has dangerous ideas for ending his life, but never particularly good ones. There’s a lot of physical humor from Keaton during this section; situational physical comedy. Most of it is smaller scale, behavior gags. Keaton’s got some amazing stunts in the short, but they’re for little things the narrative requires to keep the situational comedy going. The way he jumps out of the way and whatnot. Hard Luck is micro-physical comedy. At least for the average Keaton. Rare grandiosity. Usually, Keaton and co-writer and co-director Cline keep it pared down. The first act has a lot of Keaton interacting with other actors, a lot with other actors reacting to him.

Keaton’s great at the little comedy moves. He’s charming and sympathetic while still seeming a bit dumb.

And then when he’s not actively trying to kill himself, he stills gets into quite a bit of trouble, leading to a somewhat different feel for the gags. They do get bigger, but with Keaton and Cline very subtly pacing them out. They percolate then explode.

Virginia Fox plays the society girl who catches Keaton’s eye before going on to catch the eye of outlaw Joe Roberts. Roberts’s pursuit of Fox is downright terrifying; Roberts comes into the short late and has no character motivation other than to attack Fox (his men are busy robbing her friends in the other room). Keaton’s showdown with Roberts is smaller scale gags again, but a (literal) explosion by the end.

Besides the solo slapstick and measured physical gags, there are also many involving animals (great and small). Hard Luck is full of big laughs, little laughs, big smiles, little smiles. Despite the dark opening, it’s pleasant once it gets going. Keaton and Cline are meticulous in their direction and assured in the film’s production. The short isn’t pompous or anything and it never self-aggrandizes, but if it wanted to do either, it could easily get away with it. Because Hard Luck is hilarious.

Keaton’s also very willing to embrace the absurd. It helps remind at the beginning we’re not watching a suicidal young man, rather Keaton in a slapstick comedy about a suicidal young man. The narrative distance feels instinctive, with Keaton and Cline staying relatively close but also skewed enough they can get away with Keaton’s plight being for laughs. It does, of course, help they’ve got so much great stuff in store for the rest of the short. Its energy can’t afford to fizzle.

And it doesn’t, not even at the very end, when Hard Luck takes a few breaths before delivering its final punchline.

Keaton’s great, Fox’s fine, Roberts’s hilarious (but still dangerous). There’s not much character for Fox or Roberts, but it doesn’t matter—Hard Luck doesn’t leverage everything off Keaton (but could). He delivers lots on his own, but even more as he fits into the somewhat rigid framework of the story. The short is brimming with energy and potential.

It’s a great success.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton; director of photography, Elgin Lessley; released by Metro Pictures Corporation.

Starring Buster Keaton (The Boy), Virginia Fox (The Girl), and Joe Roberts (Lizard Lip Luke).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE FIFTH ANNUAL BUSTER KEATON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY LEA OF SILENT-OLOGY.


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Recorded Live (1975, S.S. Wilson)

Recorded Live is a student film. So director, writer, and animator Wilson’s flat composition gets some wide latitude. He’s got this silly slapstick score on a sound picture, with John Goodwin getting hired to work at an already strange-sounding TV studio only to arrive there and discover a sack of clothes instead of a boss. At that point, Live stops being–potentially–a slapstick about a weird TV studio and all of a sudden something else. Because it’s not that the boss (named W.H. O’Brien, which should’ve forecasted the stop motion) is a nudist, it’s because two reels of videotape has eaten him. But not his clothes.

The short starts getting pretty good at three minutes and then just gets better and better. It runs eight. Once the special effects start, while Goodwin is running around trying to save himself, Wilson’s plotting starts getting smarter and smarter. The reels of tape combine on the floor into a giant mess–Wilson’s definitely making this short for his seventies film school classmates, humor-wise–and it’s not until they have to start problem solving (in addition to listening and talking) they become dangerous. They’re a funny kind of dangerous before because it’s still a comedy, but then they get actually dangerous.

All because of how well Wilson plots the reveals and executes them through action with the stop motion animation. The short is this wonderful synthesis of inventive writing and special effects. Even after it gets really good, Wilson is able to up it even more.

Goodwin’s fine in the lead. His main line is “Hello,” as he explores the empty building. He handles the danger better than the comedy, which is quite a thing since he’s got so many effects shots to work in.

Recorded Live starts like a slight student film. A modern slapstick perhaps. Then all of a sudden it becomes this awesome horror thing. Wilson’s got his specific audience–people who think videotape is messy and hate erasing it when a magnet gets too close–but the phenomenal special effects make it transcend a target audience. The characterization of the videotape monsters or whatever, done through Wilson’s effects and the great sound (from Ben Burtt, so no shock great), is truly exceptional work.

Recorded Live is great.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed, and animated by S.S. Wilson; music by George Winston; released by Pyramid Films.

Starring John Goodwin (Mr. Aaines).


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The Window (2000, Jono Oliver)

The Window opens with a crowd on the street, looking up. There’s a title card, so it’s a good bet they’re all looking at a window. Pretty soon the cops show up–it’s set in Flatbush, Brooklyn–and ask what’s going on. Some people see Jesus up in the window, some people don’t. But it’s a big crowd; the people who see it are inspired (like senior Sarallen), other people are just hanging out. Responding cops Rosalyn Coleman and Marcuis Harris are divided too. Coleman doesn’t see anything, Harris kind of sees it. But they decide they need to do something, so they head up to the apartment (meeting Sarallen’s grandson, Chad Christopher Tucker, on the way–he doesn’t see it).

In the apartment there’s a similar divide. Husband Eric R. Moreland is just trying to enjoy his weekend, eat some lunch, watch a game. Wife Cheryl Monroe got home as the crowd was starting to gather and saw the Jesus too. So she’s calling up people from the church to come over–pastor Craig T. Williams is hilarious–while Moreland suffers losing his day.

Eventually Coleman decides the window’s coming out. Harris isn’t in complete agreement, but he’s fine with it. Meanwhile, a news crew has shown up and the window is on TV. And there are more cops, including Romi Dias who wants Coleman to hold off on taking out the window until her grandmother comes down to see it.

Writer and director Oliver keeps a relatively light tone and nimbly moves through the discussions of faith and, well, grime. Whenever the action isn’t on the street, where the film listens in on the crowd’s reactions (or just shows them), usually with a humorous bent (though everyone knows how much it means to Sarallen), Coleman’s the lead. And she’s a great lead. For most of The Window she operates with a quiet exasperation as she’s not only got to keep the variety of regular people in check, she’s also got partner Harris mildly aggravating the situation, not to mention Dias loudly aggravating it.

Besides Coleman, also exasperated husband Moreland gets the most to do. The film often plays Coleman and Moreland off one another, something the actors and Oliver handle beautifully. Oliver has this single shot in the bathroom–Jesus is in the bathroom window–with the camera pointing away from the window and it’s full of people. Seven at one point. And the emphasis has to bounce all around.

Outside Coleman and Harris’s initial discussion, Oliver’s script doesn’t spend any time on the questions the window (and what people see in it) raise. It’s present throughout, but the action is too busy with the practicality. The cops want to break up the crowd, Coleman’s going the fastest route.

Everything’s good throughout–Michael Pearlman’s photography is phenomenal, great music from David Abir (who eventually takes the whole thing on his shoulders)–but it gets even better once Coleman (and Oliver) really start dealing with things. Without any exposition, just reaction. It’s all about Coleman’s performance. And Oliver’s direction.

The Window’s kind of gently spectacular. Or more, first it’s gentle and good, then it’s quietly spectacular.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Jono Oliver; director of photography, Michael Pearlman; edited by Daniel Carey; music by David Abir; production designer, Eric Oliver.

Starring Rosalyn Coleman (Officer Briggs), Marcuis Harris (Officer Turner), Eric R. Moreland (Lester), Cheryl Monroe (Lucy), Craig T. Williams (Brother Herbert), Virginia McKinzie (Sister Mary), Chad Christopher Tucker (Terrence), Robert Hatcher (Reverend Sinclair), Romi Dias (Officer Newman), Brian Cahill (Officer Doyle), and Sarallen (Mrs. Davis).


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The Critic (1963, Ernest Pintoff)

At just about three minutes of “action,” The Critic is the perfect length. It opens with some abstract animation–black shapes dancing around variously colored backgrounds, as active (versus tranquil) classical music plays. The designs get more complex, but for the first thirty seconds (so fifteen percent of the action), Critic plays it straight. It’s some abstract animation short. Not too complicated, but lively.

And then Mel Brooks asks, “What the hell is this?”

And The Critic starts on its path to sublimity.

For a while, it’s just Brooks talking about the action on screen. Dot moving over here, dot moving over there. Some shapes getting jiggy.

Brooks’s character is a cranky, impatient old Russian guy and we’re hearing his thoughts. It’s perfectly fine. Brooks is funny, it’s not going to go on very long, it’s all good.

Only we’re not hearing his thoughts. Or, more, we are hearing his thoughts. But so are all the other people watching the short film with him.

He’s in a theater, talking out loud. That detail gives The Critic the extra oomph it needs and pushes it up and over. It’s awesome.

Brooks ad-libbed the whole thing too. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t even show him the short before he recorded.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest Pintoff; written by Mel Brooks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mel Brooks.


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