Thursday, December 1, 2016

Review - The Proposal (2005)

December 1, 2016

The Proposition – Australia, 2005

There’s something familiar about John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, something that, despite all the film has going for it, prevents it from being the masterstroke that it had the potential to be. We’ve simply seen it before. The film’s basic elements are so familiar that even though the characters don’t know what will eventually happen, the audience should be able to. If for any reason they can’t, close attention to the dialogue should yield a few fairly obvious clues. After all, when a character says a variation of the standard “If you do this, we’ll all pay the price,” it’s a safe bet that a) an unwise action will be carried out and b) someone will seek revenge sooner or later.

The Proposition begins with a whisper from the grave - in its opening credits we see real black and white photos of 19th century Australia, pictures which establish the formality and segregation of those times. Eventually, the images turn deadlier, with depictions of dead bodies, physical mistreatment, and the constant presence of guns, hinting at a time of violence and peril. These are indeed wicked times filled with far too many wicked people.

The film opens with a gun battle between a small group of young men inside a small wood home and an unknown force that clearly has more fire power than they do. Very soon we see two of them handcuffed and seated in front of one Captain Morris Stanley. The two prisoners are members of a family of outlaws whose most recent crime involved the murder of a family of three, one a baby. Stanley should lock them both up, but he makes the older one a deal: Find and kill his elusive older brother, and he and his younger brother will go free.

From there, the film follows two paths. In the first one, we watch the captain and see the repercussions of his unusual offer. Interestingly, the film gives us a view of his home life and the strain that his job puts on him and his wife, played by Emily Blount. We also see that Stanley is surrounded by men far less moral and upright than he is, men who seem just as eager to engage in violence as the criminals they are pursuing. Throughout the film, Captain Stanley repeats a chilling mantra, “This land will be civilized,” and yet as the film progresses, he comes to be seen as one of the most decent characters, a man looking for reason and order in a land that he views as sorely lacking it, yet pursuing it in the most humane way possible. Later in the film, we meet his superior, a man who demonstrates just how much Stanley is swimming against the stream. To this character, strategy is for fools; it is far better just to kill anyone who stands in their way.

The film’s second path follows the actions of Charlie Burns (Guy Pierce), the brother given the proposal. His path is a familiar, yet consistently fascinating one, that of a path into the heart of darkness. He crosses inhospitable land, meets an eccentric character who quotes Darwin, but mocks the notion that mankind evolved from animals, and frequently finds himself in mortal danger, all the while contemplating whether to fulfill his part of the captain’s indecent proposal.

I found both of these stories fascinating, and I admired the film for its portrayal of imperfect characters trying to survive imperfect times. I was also pleasantly surprised that when the elusive older brother finally makes an appearance, he is far from the maniacal, half-crazed figure I expected – although these traits do eventually appear. Instead, he is a man who enjoys sitting on a rock and watching the sun rise while marveling at the beauty of a world that he is helping to turn blood red.

The Proposition has been compared to the works of Sergio Leone, and the comparison is an apt one. Leone specialized in placing characters in situations that called for them to either be the heroic people they were or to find the courage within themselves. Charlie Burns and Captain Stanley both match this description. It helps that The Proposition is set during such difficult times, times when the law was not always lawful, when people justified terrible acts with a vision of tomorrow being better than today, and when racism blinded people to the horror going on around them. I also admired the way the film contains lessons in Australian history without being overtly preachy. We see the existence of several groups, Native Australians, Irish immigrants, and Australians of British ancestry, and get a good sense of the animosity that existed at that time. Sometimes in a film of this sort, the backdrop can prove to be more compelling than the central narrative. Fortunately, that is not the case here.

Sure, the film is not entirely original, yet it tells an unoriginal story in a fresh way. The film is aided greatly by the superb performances of the cast, especially Pierce, Winstone, and Emily Blunt. I also appreciated Hillcoat’s use of imagery and landscape shots, in particular his depiction of an idyllic garden in the middle of Australia’s harsh and overbearing dry heat. It’s as if he was saying that there was beauty even in the worst and most punishing of environments, that there was still something to be cherished in a land at war with itself. Again, not an entirely novel concept, but one rarely presented as well as it is here. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review - Maggie

November 24, 2016

Maggie – US, 2016

It probably would look something like this. By this, of course, I mean a zombie apocalypse. It wouldn’t be sudden or instantaneous; you wouldn’t be able to count down the time it took for someone to turn animalistic and lose all of his humanity. If a zombie-like state were real, it would likely arrive as a plague, as a slow-moving virus that slowly eroded both the physical body and the human spirit until all that remained was a disheveled body being controlled by one’s basest instincts. It wouldn’t be understood completely, and in the absence of an immediate remedy, there would be panic, new laws, the stripping of rights – the list goes on. Its closest resemblance would be the early days of the AIDS virus, only on a much more horrific scale.

This is the world depicted in first-time director Henry Hobson’s Maggie. Like Signs and many of the best films of the genre, Hobson grounds his film, limiting its scope to just one town and one family. Playing against type is Arnold Schwarzenneger as Wade Vogel, a family man and farmer. In the film’s opening moments, we hear a message from his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) telling him that she has returned but not to attempt to find her. Wade, as expected, leaves immediately. He finds Maggie, infected, in a hospital, and, after learning that she does not pose an immediate threat to society, takes her home. It is what we would expect a father to do.

What follows is a study in what happens when fear and panic threaten to tear at our common humanity. There are some people that abandon the infected, sending them off to be quarantined for the remainder of their cut-short lives (and to a much worse future if what we learn about the quarantines in one scene is accurate); some who cling to the infected too long, putting both themselves and their neighbors at risk; and others who feel the need for one last meeting, one last hug, one last touch before the inevitable occurs. Maggie triumphs in these moments. In one of the most tender scenes, Maggie meets with friends from school for the last time, and we clearly see the pain of these final good-byes.

Other moments in the film depict choices that no person should have to make, such as when Wade comes face to face with two neighborhood children who have been infected with the virus. They have clearly succumbed to the virus, yet Wade still knows them by sight and calls out to them by name. One is just four years old. I can’t imagine the emotional toll such scenes would take on one person, let alone an entire nation. And Maggie isn’t at all ignorant – she knows that their fate could soon be hers.

As Joe, Schwarzenneger reveals a side to him that he has not shown often enough. Gone is the super-human character that inevitably performs incredible feats of strength, replaced by a quieter, much more subdued character. For the first time that I can recall in a Schwarzenneger film, I could sense the weight of the world on his shoulders and see the emotional toll of his character’s situation. In many scenes, Hobson strips away the actor’s standard bravado, revealing a character who pushes on, not because he can, but because he must. To do otherwise would be the beginning of his demise. Wade the kind of role he should play at this stage in his career, and if he keeps at it, he may just upend commonly-held misperceptions of his range as an actor.

I’m not saying that Maggie is a game-changer or that it will one day be hailed as one of the best of its genre. The movie is a bit too bleak, and it telegraphs its finale much too far in advance. Yet, sometimes that’s a good thing, for when a story has a logical conclusion, it’s hard to fault it for ending as expected. In truth, I became invested in these characters much more than I did those in more standard films of this genre, and I was moved by the inherent decency of many of the characters, from Wade’s wife Carolyn (ably played by Nip Tuck’s Joely Richardson) to the kind, yet blunt family doctor (Jodie Moore) and Sheriff Ray Pierce (Douglas M. Griffin) caught between enforcing the law and giving a friend a little more time with his dying daughter. In the end, Maggie is not flashy or spectacular, and those looking for scenes depicting mobs of zombies ravaging the streets of American cities should look elsewhere. Those looking for a quieter contemplation on life, love, and family, though, should give Maggie a chance. I’m certainly glad I did. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review - Le Rendez-vous (1972)

November 17, 2016

Le Rendez-vous – Japan, 1972

I wanted to like Saito Koichi’s Le Rendez-vous – I really did. This is a film whose opening ten minutes - with its mesmerizing use of light colors, images of youthful innocence, sheer lack of dialogue, and eerie shots of the face of an emotionally broken woman - utterly fascinated me, and even when reservations began to set in upon the appearance of the film’s other main character, I still remained intrigued enough in the first one not to dwell on my ever growing misgivings. Eventually, though, after moment after moment of exaggerated emotions and forced scene after forced scene, I had to accept reality: the film just wasn’t doing it for me.

The film’s central character is an older woman named Keiko, played masterfully by Keiko Kishi . Keiko is traveling with another woman on a train. Their destination is not revealed, yet it is clear that they are not friends. Friends, after all, talk to each other, and these two ladies just exchange looks that betray an unusualness in their relationship. In fact, in the film’s first five minutes, Keiko’s emotion remains completely unchanged. This is a woman who has shut down emotionally and who seems to be trying to avoid anything resembling human contact. As for the other woman, she looks as if she is not there by choice.

Given this set-up, it seems natural for the person who draws Keiko out of her shell to be her polar opposite, and the young man on the train (Ken'ichi Hagiwara) is just that. He’s talkative, hyperactive, more than slightly annoying; he’s also constantly running off at inopportune times. In one such moment, he abruptly announces his need to depart just after Keiko’s revealed a startling secret. Normally, such actions would create separation, as well as doubts about the man’s maturity, yet there Keiko is in the very next scene seemingly dolling herself up to impress him.

Now this would be fine if the film were about two people drawn to each other physically or about two people who really needed someone – anyone – to get through the day. However, by the end of the film, there they are professing their love for each other and vowing to be together regardless of the challenges that stand in their way. I didn’t buy it, and, perhaps even more telling, by that point in the film, I didn’t care.

And yet, I also couldn’t look away. For one, the film is beautifully shot and includes some amazing shots that allow the audience to contrast both the drab, lifeless interior of the train and the outside world’s dull stone pathways with the startlingly bright and vibrant flowers and trees that grow in isolated patches throughout the area’s mostly vacant walkways. I saw this as the outside world reflecting Keiko’s inner state, and the colors the sporadic and fleeting moments when hope seeps through Keiko’s self-erected wall. I couldn’t help wanting to know more about this character, and I have no doubt that I would have enjoyed the film much more if it had focused exclusively on her.  

In a way, the film is a study in halves. Only one of its lead characters held my interest, and only the first part of the film created tension and mystery. Perhaps more importantly, only one of the characters made me actively wish for some indication of future happiness. I find myself wishing I had it in me to recommend a film strictly for one performance, as I’ve seen so many reviewers do over the years. I just can’t. 50 percent success just doesn’t get the job done. Nice try, though. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars


*Le Rendez-vous is in Japanese with English subtitles.   

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Review - Madam Satan

November 10, 2016

Madam Satan – US, 1930

The most important line in Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan is uttered early on in the film by Mrs. Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson), the young wife of a wealthy playboy named Robert Brooks (Reginald Denny). It goes like this: “Is it worthwhile for a wife to break her back to please her husband?” The fact that she even asks this is proof that she is a kindhearted character, one whose own happiness would be willingly sacrificed in the name of love, and so she goes about tying to make her husband’s world as joyful as possible. She makes sure the servants have everything clean before he comes home, ensures that dinner is waiting for me when he walks in the door, and makes certain to look her best for him, even at very late hours. If only the cad did something to deserve this treatment.

That he doesn’t - not even at the conclusion of the film - is a problem, for it puts the onus on her to save the marriage. There’s even a moment in which Mr. Brooks tells her that she is to blame for the poor state of their marriage. As he explains it, she became cold and practical, a little too preoccupied with being married to actually spend quality time with her husband. In his words, she went from being a pal to being a wife, the insinuation being that when a woman gets married, she loses her sense of fun.

Early on in the film it is revealed that Robert has taken up with a spirited young woman named Trixie (Lillian Roth). We know she’s the villain because instead of enjoying classical music, she swings her hips to the sounds of jazz, smokes, and openly shows her legs. Decent women, this and films such as 1921’s The Affairs of Anatol imply, listen to classical music and attend formal parties. However, the film also subtly implies that keeping her man may require her to embrace, as one character puts it, flesh and blood. And so Angela sets out to meet and confront Trixie in an effort to win her man back, regardless of how unworthy he is.

Like many films from this time in film history, Madam Satan is an amalgamation of several film genres, and the combination is not an entirely successful one. The film includes moments intended as comedy, most of which involve Robert’s good friend Jimmy Wade (Roland Young). Then there are the film’s more dramatic elements, ones intended to reflect upon Angela’s status as a wronged woman, and the film continues the trend of adding musical numbers to stories that truly don’t need them. Far too often dramatic moments grind to a screeching halt just so characters can emote in songs that, which the exception of Trixie’s number, Low Down, have truly not aged well. There is also a storyline that resembles those found in many Shakespearean comedies. However, Shakespeare’s women were smart, and when they went out in disguise, it was often as wise and educated men who had some say in the fate of the people around them. That is not the case here. Here, she just cheapens herself.

And it’s not just her. The film includes a masque ball where men bid on women as if they were material objects, and at that same ball, skimpily dressed dancers bump and grind in a way that makes the whole scene resembles an orgy. It made me recall the ball in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. However, in that film, the ball was a metaphor for the morally-questionable situations that jealousy and anger can lead people to enter into. In Madam Satan, they’re purely sensational, and the creepy world it represents is portrayed as just another test of Angela’s love for her husband. In other words, she is not saving him from it; she is joining it, becoming a participant in its depravity for a guy who never stops being the schmuck he is revealed to be in the film’s opening moments.

Director Cecil B. DeMille is a legend, yet even he is not able to connect the film’s fragmented narratives into one cohesive thread. He is also unable to get his actors on track, and for most of the first half they are slightly off in their delivery of their lines. The pauses are too long, the emotions too flat, and the comedy too forced. Later DeMille seems to have instructed Denny to stand as if he were channeling a superhero from one of those early serials - his chest sticks out, his hands rest on his hips, even his voice becomes more animated. It’s more ludicrous than commanding.

Throughout all this, Young is the only one who really stands out. As Jimmy, he displays talents in comedy skills that in another film would have had audiences in stitches, and as the film unfolds, his is the only character to undergo real change. A smarter and more daring film would have taken this character and run with it. Here, he is simply underused. (Young acted steadily up until his death in 1953.)

Suffice to say, I was disappointed with the film. I wanted less comedy, fewer songs (or at least better ones), and more honest storytelling. Instead we get a patronizing approach to saving a marriage that essentially makes it the responsibility of the wife. She should be both sweet and wild, forgiving and driven. She should be willing to go to ends of the earth to save her marriage and to become whatever her husband wants her to become, and if she doesn’t, if she dares to have standards or self-respect, she has no one to blame but herself if her husband ends up in the arms of another women. Look. I get that this is an old movie and that it doesn’t reflect today’s sentiments. But I have to ask: Just when were such sentiments ever acceptable? (on DVD as part of Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection)

2 stars

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review - The Letter (1929)

November 3, 2016

The Letter – US, 1929

Jean Di Limur’s The Letter is a shock to the system, a punch to the gut that for some time after the film was over I was unable to recover from. It’s as if the commandments that restrain so many films were completely lifted from this one and the world was allowed to be depicted as a particularly cold and overconfident one, one teetering on the brink of utter moral collapse. To truly understand the mad world depicted in the film, consider this: The only two remotely likable characters are a weak man utterly incapable of seeing his wife as deviating in any way from his stereotypically ideal version of the traditional wife - you know, the kind that will dutifully follow a man half way around the world and who always has a lit match ready when he wants to smoke his pipe - and a lawyer.

In all fairness to the lunkhead referenced earlier, the film’s lead character put on quite a performance. In the film’s opening scene, a masterful journey during which the camera seems to be sneaking from the seedy streets of Singapore’s Chinatown to the secluded confines of a married couple’s home, we first see Leslie Crosby in the living room knitting while her colonialist husband waxes on about how lucky he is. Look closely though and you’ll notice the way Leslie’s expression shifts with her husband’s attention. His eyes are on her, she is content; his attention goes elsewhere, her face becomes a combination of frustration and anxiety. Clearly, she is just barely holding it together, yet there is her husband extolling her virtues and practically proclaiming her the greatest wife that has ever lived. He gives credence to that old adage about love being blind.

And now I’ve come to a crossroads, for even though I have only described the first few minutes of the film, I’m at a point where to reveal more would be to risk weakening the film’s grip on potential viewers. At just sixty minutes, the film begins with a bang and then dashes along at breakneck speed, rarely letting up and never giving viewers an opportunity to side with any of the players involved in the drama that unfolds. To rob viewers of the joy of discovery – if that is indeed the right phrase –would be an injustice. I don’t even feel safe mentioning the fascinating, yet shocking themes that the film touches on. So, I shall just say this. There is a murder, a trial, and a letter. I feel safe in revealing these things, for even though these elements form the skeletal structure of what follows the moments described earlier, in fact, they reveal nothing. The film is about so much more, and nothing unfolds as if first appears it might.

Anchoring it all is Jeanne Eagles’s astonishing performance. As Leslie, she put on an actor’s clinic. It is not a typical “chameleon” performance, for Eagles did not change her physical appearance for the role, but to watch her facial expressions and body language is to see a character with the uncanny ability to become whatever she needs to in order to survive and an actress so in tune with what her character is thinking and feeling that it can be painful to watch. There are moments when Eagles squirms and fidgets in a way that betrays the utter contempt that Leslie feels for certain characters, and the way she delivers jaw-dropping lines filled with bitingly vile expressions as if they were matter-of-fact enunciations of truth amazes even as it shocks. Later she’s even asked to lay on the sweetness, and, darn it, it even got me believing that Leslie wasn’t all that bad. The performance is truly one for the ages, and were it not for Eagles’ death just six months after the film’s release, I have no doubt that she would be mentioned in articles devoted to the great actresses ever to appear on film.

The Letter is not always the easiest film to watch, but it’s a jaw-dropping experience that you’ll not soon forget. And it has an ending that smashes you over the head with raw emotion and some of the most hurtful expressions I have ever heard in a film. I don’t normally say this about a film described in this way, but I can’t wait to see it again. (on DVD as part of Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection)

4 stars  

*The film earned Eagles a nomination for Best Actress at the 2nd Academy Awards in 1930. She lost to Mary Pickford in Coquette.

*Eagles is credited with making just twelve films, four of which are shorts. Only The Letter appears to be on DVD.  Two of her films are available for free on Amazon through Fandor.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Miscellaneous Musings: On the Present, Past, and Future

October 27, 2016

On the Present, Past, and Future

My daughter turns two next month, and I must admit that movies have become harder to make time for. Not less important, mind you, but there have been many times when plans for an evening movie have yielded to a request for a story or a late night play session with a restless child. Movies can’t really compete with those moments. After all, each moment with my daughter is a moment I’ll only have once. Not true of a movie I own.

I have recently begun to wonder what my daughter will make of my collection of films when she is older. Hers will likely be a generation that has little or no experience with traditional video stores, and if a recent trip to San Francisco is any indication, there may be far fewer places that have the kind of vast selection that my generation was spoiled with at stores that now exist only in our memories. Two of my last hopes, Rasputin and Amoeba Records, now sell far more used DVDs and Blu-rays than new ones, and even out-of-print DVDs no longer sell for the extravagant prices they used to. It seems there’s just little demand for them to justify asking customers to fork over $50 for something that they can rent digitally for $3. And what stores do have is no longer as extensive as it used to be. I had a list of 100 movies I was looking for, and I found only seven of them during my entire trip. A sign of the times perhaps.

Movies are not in danger of completely disappearing  of course. There's streaming and downloading, and new movies will likely one day be available in your home on the same day that they’re released in theaters. Yet, watching a movie on a computer, smart phone or Netflix is a different experience than the one that earlier generations had. A few years ago, Leonard Martin explained how he’d had to actively seek out films when he started out. He would often scan TV Guide looking for rare or unseen films and stay up late watching them just to be able to check them off his list. I can only imagine he made regular pilgrimages to revue houses whenever a forgotten film was being shown. This was before VHS, yet even when VHS came along, many films simply never made it onto the format. I remember scouring video stores for secondhand copies of films released by such independent companies as Kino, New Yorker Films, and Embassy Home Entertainment. They were somewhat expensive, but their addition to a collection made that collection just a little more special. Will my daughter understand this way of thinking?

And then there were the conversations about films that used to fill the air of local video stores. Get a video store clerk or a film enthusiast talking about his favorite films or directors, and it was intoxicating. Many times I walked out of a store with a film I had either not intended to rent or had not even known existed. Will this kind of passionate conversation be common when everyone has access to the same films at the same time?

In his 2015 essay, Dennis Perkins wrote that going to video stores was a commitment of your time, energy, and money. You felt invested in the films you rented because you had spent time getting to the store and wandering around as you mentally pondered a whole host of conditions and possibilities. Renting a movie was often the result of careful deliberation, and when you finally made your selection, you were committed to finishing it, regardless of whether it was a masterpiece or turkey. It’s not the same with streaming or downloading. Less investment means less commitment, and it’s said that some Netflix subscribers give a film just ten minutes to grab their attention, and if it doesn’t, they find something else to watch.

This is the environment that my daughter will grow up in, an environment in which so much is at our fingertips. The challenge is that having access to something at the click of a mouse or having it stored on a USB can remove its immediacy. We can always watch it later. And later, of course, can eventually become never, partly because for many people there’s always something else going on online. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to watch a film while texting. Some people even go online to ask if they should finish the movie they’re watching. To many people from my generation, such actions are nothing short of sacrilegious. Will my daughter share this view?

I don’t mean to suggest that all is lost. It is not. Every term I meet students who are interested in discovering films that others deride as being unwatchable, mainly silent films and films in black-and-white. One of my students recently watched 12 Angry Men for the first time after it came up in a writing class and liked it quite a lot; also, every so often I come across a young person scanning the classic film section in one of Taipei’s remaining DVD stores. Discovery continues. My hope is that it will continue for my daughter as well.

It is said that a love of reading in adulthood is planted in childhood by a parent who makes reading a regular part of their time with their children. I believe the same is true of a love of films. Films are at a disadvantage, though. My daughter’s favorite books right now are The Little Engine That Could and Where the Wild Things Are, two books that could rightly be called classics of children’s literature. However, there is nothing in their appearance that would render them old. Their pictures are in color, their themes are timeless, and what appeals to children at a young age have changed very little over the years. This is not true of cinema. Films age, and some of them can look as if they are from another century, if not another world. Building an interest in them may be an uphill battle – one definitely worth engaging in, but an uphill battle nonetheless. I’d better get started.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review - The Cameraman (1928)

September 20, 2016

Cameraman, The – US, 1928

Buster Keaton’s 1928 film The Cameraman begins by paying homage to cameramen who run toward danger. Keaton’s character, Buster, is not one of those cameramen. In fact, he’s only likely to get close to something perilous if it approaches him. That is, of course, until a young lady comes into his life and convinces him that things need to change. For Buster Keaton, such a situation was nothing new, yet there is a sweetness to The Cameraman that makes it feel fresh and vibrant, and it is now one of my favorite of Keaton’s films.

In the film, Buster walks around with a camera on a tripod asking people if they want to take a tintype, a photograph made on a thin tin plate. In the film’s opening scene, an attempt to take a man’s photo is interrupted by a mob of onlookers and professional photographers, all rushing to get a glimpse of what looks like a politician. In the crowd, Buster finds himself touching shoulders with a young woman whom he literally can’t take his eyes off. Eventually, he takes her picture, and after she is whisked away by a co-worker, he decides to search for her and give her the snapshot. This begins a rather charming courtship and a mad-dash push for a job as a “real” cameraman. Both of these story lines are hilarious and involving.

One of the truly wonderful things about the film is that it devotes a great deal of time to establishing a rapport between Buster and his muse, Sally, played by Marceline Day. Sally is moved by Buster’s decency and positivity and eventually the two of them go on a date together. It starts out as a walk, turns into a jaunt at a swimming pool, and ends with a tender kiss on the cheek. You can literally watch them developing a mutual interest, and by the end of this part of the film, I was genuinely rooting for them.

Like many other slapstick films from the Silent Era, Keaton’s films were often structured around a series of physical gags, and during such comic moments, the plot would essentially grind to a halt. Here, such moments are present, but in a much truncated form, something I have been critical of in later Laurel and Hardy films. Here, however, it is the right approach. A scene in which Buster and another man are both trying to change into bathing suits in a very tight changing room is short but complete, and at just the right moment, the film cuts to outside the changing rooms, where we see Buster standing in a bathing suit that is clearly not his. A scene in which he tries to break a coin box is similarly short. We see a few attempts to open it, each that end in destruction to his surroundings, and then just as the audience is settling in a for a much longer slapstick bit, Buster throws the box and it shatters. Done, and hilariously accomplished.

The heart of the film is of course Keaton, and here he is at his optimistic and good-hearted best. Buster thinks that there’s nothing he can’t do, provided that he receives the opportunity to prove himself, and Keaton embodies these sentiments. I have seen most if not all of Keaton’s silent films, and I think it’s safe to say that silent comedy was his forte. Few actors – and not just those from the silent period - could do what Keaton did with just his face alone. He had the unique ability of being able to completely convey the reception of a message and its emotional impact on him. His eyes could express both love and sadness, and soon his entire body would join in the expression of his feelings. As a result, his characters earned not only the audience’s empathy but also their backing. Matching him in his endeavors is Day. Her role is tricky, requiring her to reflect both Sally’s support of Buster and her growing awareness of his shortcomings. There are moments in the film when Sally looks at him with such confidence in her eyes that we fully understand why that brief glance would fill Buster with such drive to persevere. Keaton and Day indeed made a great comedy team, and it is a shame that The Cameraman was their only film together.

The Cameraman is engaging, well-paced, and very often side-splittingly hilarious. It is a film that is well-worth seeking out. (on DVD and part of TCM Archive’s Buster Keaton Collection)


4 stars