Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Major Barbara - Reviews #103

This is probably the most personal review I've ever put on here. Uh-oh.

"Drunkenness and murder! My God: why hast thou forsaken me?"
Major Barbara (Gabriel Pascal, 1941)
- There are some performances that bypass your critical faculties altogether, connecting not with your brain but with your soul. They are desperately few, those characterisations of such heightened sensitivity, such emotional resonance that the effect is both exalting and suffocating. You might chance upon one every three of four years, if you're lucky. I don't know why, or how, but every time Wendy Hiller utters a line or holds the frame in Major Barbara, I am on the verge of tears. It's just such a beautiful, enrapturing performance, the perfect, compassionate, warm and beating heart of a satirical, often cynical Bernard Shaw gabfest that cocks a snook at temperance, the Sally Army and those who see nobility in poverty. The first time round, I found it difficult to grasp the polemic beyond Shaw's bombast - and his alter-ego's bomb blasts. On a second viewing, it's much clearer: poverty is the real enemy; don't bother thinking about the soul until you've saved the body.

Hiller is the title figure, whose faith in the noble work of her Salvation Army is shattered when her bosses accept a donation from her father, a supercilious, devilish, ominously-twinkling arms dealer (Robert Morley) who looks and acts like a mix of Shaw and Satan. Hiller has entranced professor Rex Harrison in a spellbinding prologue added especially for the film - I'd have the audio of either that speech or the climactic one in my eight Desert Island Discs - and destroyed loutish Robert Newton through softly-spoken rectitude, but has her life torn asunder by the compromise of all she holds dear, before rising again, eyes shining, voice lifting as she enters a brave new world. "Transfigured", as Shaw intended. Much is made by acting buffs of Hiller's supposed staginess in her early films. They say she's stiff, overly technical, soon to be overtaken by a more naturalistic mode of performance. What a load of shit. Great acting isn't what you see, it's what you feel, and Hiller's characterisation - through whatever method - cuts right to the bone.

Shaw's wise, profound, wilfully contrarian (though somewhat abridged) script is all kinds of magic, even if very occasionally - as with another fine Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde - you want to slap him in the face and shout: "I knew you were going to fashion an epigram by reversing the previous line, now stop being so fucking pleased with yourself!" Perhaps that's just a personal thing. Helping out Gabriel Pascal, who also helmed the Shaw/Hiller collaboration Pygmalion, are assistant director David Lean, cinematographer Ronald Neame (who made Tunes of Glory), production designer Vincent Korda, and Cecil Beaton, sorting out the costumes. Cast-wise, Morley is terrific in a big, broad part, while Rex Harrison is at his most looking-like-a-dog-ish in a curious role that's neither one thing or another. It's a solid performance, reaching an admirable crescendo at Morley's factory, but lacking the potency or white hot comic smarts of Pygmalion lead Leslie Howard. The supporting cast is largely superb, particularly Marie Lohr as the self-pitying aristo married to Morley, Walter Hudd - hysterical as their feeble, pompous son - and David Tree being inappropriate at all the best times. Deborah Kerr is touching in her first film (she later shared the screen with Hiller in the brilliant Separate Tables), while Newton is dynamic and compelling - if perhaps a little over-ripe - as the rotten apple hurling himself at the Sally Army.

It's Hiller's film, though, an extraordinary showcase for a rare and remarkable talent, her greatest creation a living, breathing, wonderful woman of Shavian rhetorical powers, uplifting faith and arresting, all-consuming empathy. "Oh, did you think my courage would never come back?" she asks Harrison in a transcendent closing monologue. "Did you believe that I was a deserter? That I, who have stood in the streets, and taken my people to my heart, and talked of the holiest and greatest things with them, could ever turn back and chatter foolishly to fashionable people about nothing in a drawing room?" It absolutely floors me. (4)

See also: I had Hiller's turn at #2 in my best female performances list - I'm starting to think I might have underrated it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Nothing Lasts Forever, Woody at his best and Douglas Sirk in the noughties - Reviews #102

"I like a Gershwin tune/How about you?" Yeah, loads, and there are plenty in Woody Allen's Manhattan, which wowed me for the umpteenth time last weekend. Also in this batch of reviews: further artful use of black-and-white in the hard-to-find '80s cult item Nothing Lasts Forever, The Academy of the Overrated's Michael Mann in atypically fine form, and The Gruffalo crashing a lesbian household.

“I had a mad impulse to throw you down on the lunar surface and commit interstellar perversion.”
Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979) – This brilliantly-written study of relationships in modern-day New York was Woody’s first truly great film. He plays a neurotic TV comedy writer – surely not! – who’s dating a high-school student (Mariel Hemingway), but lusts after opinionated journalist Diane Keaton, the mistress of his best friend (Michael Murphy). The scene in the planetarium is a particular wonder, and Allen and Murphy's climactic showdown is a comic masterpiece ("'I liked her first'? What are you, six years old?"). But it's superb all round: wonderfully-photographed in black-and-white, scored by peerless Gershwin tunes and boasting a brilliant supporting performance from Hemingway, all building to a typically-inspired Woody pay-off: “You have to have a little faith in people.” (Smile.) Sob. (4)

See also: There's more stuff about Woody here.


Nothing Lasts Forever (Tom Schiller, 1984) – One-of-a-kind fantasy-comedy set in an alternate past (bizarre future?) and shot in the style of a ‘30s studio movie, albeit with vivid snippets of newsreel and stock footage, Bunuel, Griffith and Eisenstein. Zach Galligan is an artist (medium undecided) who returns from Europe to make his name and finds Manhattan locked-down by the port authority, in the midst of a 100-day strike. Cue adventures in Dada, highways management and moon travel, appearances from Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, and a musical number set in a lunar greenhouse. Friend-of-Gizmo, Gilligan, can be a little callow as a lead, but here his slightly uneasy quality is put to fine use. This is a true original – albeit with nods to both Kafka and classic sci-fi movies – with a superb score from Howard Shore and a look and feel that’s all its own. (3.5)


Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
- This is perhaps Fincher's best to date (it's a toss-up with Seven): a riveting, meticulously-detailed procedural, with a few early excursions into slasher territory, that charts the investigation into a still-unsolved murder spree that took at least seven lives and consumed three others: those of an obsessive cartoonist-cum-author (Jake Gyllenhaal), an alcoholic journo (Robert Downey, Jnr.) and a hard-working cop (The Gruffalo). The script wears its rigorous research lightly, the direction is virtuosic and The Gruffalo stands out in an ensemble that doesn't put a foot wrong, though if the film has a failing, it's that the character drama isn't always as pronounced as it should be and does occasionally lapse into cliche. Still, it's utterly gripping, immersing you in the thankless, plodding world of police work - alive with minor victories - even if I find it hard to believe that a Joel McCrea fan and silent film cheerleader called Rick could possibly be considered a suspect in a crime. (3.5)


Al Pacino and W.C. Fields.

The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999) is a superb drama about pasty Big Tobacco exec Russell Crowe and how his life unravels after he tries to turn whistleblower for 60 Minutes producer Al Pacino. I’m largely immune to Mann’s movies – Heat and Ali are two of the most boring, badly-directed films I’ve ever seen – but here his domestic fixation and penchant for lonely saxes and scenes of people wandering on the beach at night fit the material perfectly, and his pacing and skilful handling of the narrative are reminiscent of Sidney Lumet at his considerable best, aside from the needless repetition of footage from the doc-within-the-film, which is a minor complaint. He’s aided by an exceptional cast – the hammy Michael Gambon aside – with Crowe unquestionably the standout in a complex part. Mann’s script, co-written with Eric Roth, is eloquent and cleverly heightened, though the alleged zingers they feed Pacino are a bit of a misstep – they seem out of place and they’re not funny. What is funny is the scene after the deposition, where Crowe is standing on a lawn in the half-light and he looks like W.C. Fields. He should have just run all the Big Tobacco bigwigs off the road and into a ditch, tooting his horn. Still, The Insider is an important, impassioned and very entertaining film: its engrossing story lit by fine performances. (3.5)


Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) is an expert pastiche of Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s - particularly All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life - that also stands on its own two feet. The gimmick, and there is always one where homages are concerned, is that Haynes deals with themes that were resolutely off-limits for moviemakers during the Eisenhower era, like homosexuality and inter-racial love. Julianne Moore is the smiling housewife whose apparently perfect existence is shattered by the revelation that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay. She seeks solace in the company of her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert), but it turns out that small-town housewives of the 1950s will talk... Haynes's florid recreation of the style of classic-era "women's pictures" is meticulous, the cast is uniformly fine and there's a terrific, backwards-looking score from Elmer Bernstein that captures the essence of the genre. The director's script is literate but admirably straightforward: particularly the matter-of-fact way it deals with the process of "curing" homosexuality, which is both insightful and genuinely shocking. Significantly, Far From Heaven makes a welcome break from the popular presentation of the '50s as a time of optimism, swinging hips and tailfins, showing it instead as a period of emotional repression and stifling conformity: the projected image defended at all costs against the stark reality. To get the full effect - and appreciate the dark humour of the opening reels - a crash-course in Sirk would definitely help, but I think you can appreciate the film regardless, as a deliciously mannered portrait of an ideal crashing quietly to the floor. (3.5)


The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010) – Entertaining comedy-drama in the Jason Reitman/Tom McCarthy vein - though from a female perspective - the lightness of the approach belying the amount going on under the surface, as lonely sperm donor Mark Ruffalo becomes acquainted with lesbian couple Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, and the two teenage offspring he never know about. The performances are excellent, particularly from Ruffalo and daughter Mia Wasikowska, but while the film certainly has its moments, it doesn’t always achieve the emotional resonance you might hope for, or expect. The way the inevitable appearance of Joni Mitchell’s Blue is crowbarred into the storyline, late-era Woody Allen-style, is also a bit crap - though the pay-off isn’t bad- while the whole film climaxes with a fucking group hug. Still, the performances make it, and it’s nice to find another mainstream-ish Hollywood film dealing with grown-up subjects like female sexuality in an intelligent way (you get to see one of Julianne Moore’s boobs at one point!). If you like it, the 1992 indie Gas, Food, Lodging has a somewhat similar angle on life, as well as one of the greatest performances I've ever seen, from a 17-year-old Fairuza Balk. (3)


The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)
– Freezing, powerful Egoyan drama about lawyer Ian Holm trying to persuade the folks of a small Canadian town to file a negligence claim, after the bus crash that killed most of their children. Holm is absolutely terrific and the sequences portraying his travails with his drug addict daughter are sledgehammer stuff, but the small town scenes are a little less consistent – helped by vivid direction and a spellbinding musical score, but alternately too vague or too obvious in the scripting. Sarah Polley, who memorably stuck it to Disney back in the day, is quite good in a crucial supporting role, though Tom McCamus doesn’t really cut it as her abusive father. And he looks a lot like Tommy Wiseau. (3)


Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969) – Hitch’s powers were waning when he helmed this overly static espionage film, centring on the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it is notable for one excellent set-piece, in which intelligence service pawn Roscoe Lee Browne liberates some top secret plans from a hotel crawling with Cubans. Elsewhere, some nice directorial touches can’t really enliven lots of scenes of people just sitting around talking, at least until Philippe Noiret turns up a half hour from the end and the plot goes all Tinker, Tailor. I did enjoy Frederick Stafford’s leading man routine, but the rest of the international cast is a little nondescript. The scenes on the roads around Gard du Nord feature some of the ugliest process shots I’ve ever seen. (2.5)

NB: Hitch's cameo pre-dates Little Britain by a good three decades. He's a fella in a wheelchair at the airport who rises to his feet to shake hands.


The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
– Interesting, lushly-made drama about a mute Scottish woman (Holly Hunter) who is to marry a man she has never met (Sam Neill), and so moves to New Zealand with her daughter (Anna Paquin) and her piano, but finds herself flung around by her unpredictable will. Bribed into sexy-time with the badly miscast Harvey Keitel, she unleashes a torrent of jealousy, finger mutilation and piano music. It’s a good film, with a setting amongst the Maoris that’s rarely seen on screen and an involving story, but it never quite hits the emotional high notes, lacking real resonance even as Michael Nyman’s superlative score booms and tinkles. Perhaps Keitel’s weird, unconvincing performance is partly to blame, snapping you out of the story just as soon as you’re becoming immersed in it. Hunter is fine in a demanding part, though the really stellar performance is by Paquin – particularly good as her conflicted, confused, constantly-singing little girl. (3)


The Cat and the Canary (Radley Metzger, 1978) - Ten millionth version of the creaky old stage play, in which family members gather for the reading of a will, but are picked off one-by-one by the cat-obsessed psychopath roaming their ancestral home. The film is awash with problems: it's far too talky, the plotting often makes no sense (always best to go off on your own to the cellar when there's a murderer loose, I find), the frequent wisecracks mean literally nothing and the younger cast members are terribly bland. But it is salvaged somewhat by the welcome presence of three old-timers. Wendy Hiller is good-natured and effortlessly charismatic as the knowing executor, stage legend Beatrix Lehmann gives a masterclass in absent wandering - playing the creepy housekeeper - and Wilfrid Hyde-White has an amusing bit as the benefactor, appearing from beyond the grave via film footage - a plot point borrowed from the George Arliss vehicle, The Last Gentleman. There are also a handful of nice, old-school horror shots. We see the killer looming large behind his unwitting victims, and, best-of-all, lurking by a bed to grasp at a diamond-studded necklace, like some magpie Nosferatu. For Hiller completists, it's worth a look; others should just check out the 1939 version - a fine horror-comedy that made a star out of Bob Hope. (2)


Chisum (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1970) is a lacklustre John Wayne vehicle, from the tail-end of his career, about real-life land baron John Chisum, who joined forces with Pat Garrett and shiny-faced hotshot Billy the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel) in the summer of 1869, to see off unscrupulous tycoon Lawrence Murphy. It’s well-shot and excitably directed, with a strong cast of Golden Age veterans (Forrest Tucker, Bruce Cabot, Patric Knowles), but it suffers from a weak story and script, and action sequences that are frankly just very confusing. Added to that, Wayne is phoning it in in the lead and Ben Johnson’s character is a joke for someone of his ability. You can derive some enjoyment from the fact that every time someone says Chisum’s name, it sounds like they’re saying “jism” (the theme song goes “Jism! John Jism!” and when he appears at the, um, climax, they shout "It's jism!"), but it’s slim pickings really. (1.5)

SHORT: John Wayne and Chisum (Elliot Geisinger and Ronald Saland, 1970) – Sycophantic documentary about the making of the film. It’s usually fun seeing scenes shot from different angles – and some behind-the-scenes shorts even show different takes or deleted material – but as the film isn’t very good, it’s not so exciting. (1.5)

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Wrestler, the Talmadges, and Troy and Abed in the morning - Reviews #101

A film, a short and a TV series, because I am lovely.

The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008) reminded me a little of Anvil, in its portrait of likeable, long-haired '80s relics playing to passionate but dwindling audiences. It's a heavy-handed, obvious but well-acted study of ageing pro-wrestler Mickey Rourke, who tries to connect with a lap dancer (Marisa Tomei) and his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) after a stark reminder of his mortality. Aronofsky seems to have little faith in his audience's ability to understand even the simplest analogies, initially hinting at the fact that Rourke and Tomei are both past-it pieces of meat before deciding to clobber us over the head with it, and soundtracking our hero's walk to a new job at the deli with crowd noises - as if the way it's filmed doesn't make the connection obvious enough. OH RIGHT DARREN THANK YOU FOR EXPLAINING IT. I also suspect that if Aronofsky could direct an entire film as a tracking shot from just behind someone's head then he definitely would. The story is engrossing, building in power as it progresses, though the dialogue is variable and the self-satisfied gags about in-the-ring villains being absolutely lovely off-stage wear thin after a while. Rourke's performance is good rather than great, aside from the scene by the water, which is superb in every way and presumably what got him the Oscar nom. That and his leathery skin. Tomei, also nominated, was arguably more interesting when she was a sensitive mainstream lead* rather than a challenging, perma-naked wreck-specialist, but she does a decent job with a cliched part. I'm not sure about Wood's performance: she was excellent at the start, but by the end she was just shouting her trite dialogue whilst staring at the floor. I don't think this is the masterpiece others do, though it's still worth seeing, if only for that superlative monologue: "You're my girl. You're my little girl. And now, I'm an old broken down piece of meat... and I'm alone. And I deserve to be all alone. I just don't want you to hate me." The Nintendo game was also cool. The Wrestler was remade by Aronofsky in 2010 as Black Swan. (3)

See also: Marisa Tomei also appeared in Only You, doing her sweet-girl-abroad routine, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, not.

*This not apply to her performance in My Cousin Vinny.


SHORT: My Wife's Relations (Buster Keaton, 1922) - One of Buster's most underrated films, with a great through-line, several hysterically funny little set-pieces and a performance by its star that is essentially a series of priceless reaction shots. Accidentally married to a hefty woman with a massive dad and three big brothers, our hero navigates a family meal, a night's sleep, a photo-shoot and a posh party, displaying an impressive mix of patience, persistence and almost perpetual confusion. It's modest, with just a brief burst of dazzling stuntwork at the close (the 'carpet roll' is incredible), but the standard of throwaway gags is absolutely extraordinary, elevated by perhaps the cleverest, subtlest performance of the star's pre-features career. There's the bit where he pours the coffee into the sugar bowl to (sarcastically?) impress an in-law, the sequence with the collapsing bed and the indescribably brilliant moment in which everyone droops to the floor in unison with the photographer's slumping tripod. And how Buster can transmit such a variety of emotion whilst essentially keeping a Stoneface I don't know. The star's marital difficulties with Norma Talmadge do seem to have affected the way he portrayed love on-screen - and that's before we even get onto the subject of her relations - but where the subject matter is less tender, the films do tend to be irreverent and sardonic, rather than bleak or cynical. This one's a minor classic. (3.5)

See also: Many of Buster's other great early solo shorts are reviewed here.


TV: Community (Season 2, 2010-11)
is alternately better and lesser than the first series, with a few sincere scenes that are its finest moments to date, but far more genre episodes; pastiches in the Spaced mould. Though fine in themselves, they're not really what Community used to be about. There's a great ensemble - even if Jeff, Pierce, Annie, Troy and Abed are significantly funnier and more interesting than Shirley, Britta and the one-note Chang - and barely an episode goes by without three or four massive laughs and a dozen smaller ones. The weakest episode is probably #22, set around an anthropology exam. The best is #10, with Troy's 21st birthday party: the scene at the end with him and Annie is wonderful. Overall, it's probably a shade below the debut season, but it's still a real treat. (4)

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Sherlock: Series 1 Revisited

I dug out the DVD and wrote short-and-therefore-essentially-pointless recaps of the opening three episodes, and the one the BBC threw in the bin. Since I'd done that, I thought I may as well put them up here. To be honest, I'm not adding much to the world with this one, though there are *SPOILERS* throughout. If you're in the mood for other insultingly brief pieces about the programme, my original four-sentence review was here, the first episode of the second series got a brief mention here and there was a slightly lengthier and more worthwhile summary of the whole season here.


A Study in Pink (3.5) - I still don't think the encounter with the culprit quite works, but everything else about this open is utterly extraordinary. It's astonishingly sure-footed, with virtuosic performances from Cumberbatch and Freeman, scintillating dialogue and the kind of slick direction that's at once modern and timeless. The Blind Banker (2.5) is the weakest episode of the six so far (though Steve Thompson also penned the best of the bunch), with a convoluted, shapeless story about Chinese treasures, and uninteresting supporting characters. The interactions between Holmes and Watson are at least familiarly fine, and the Watson-is-Holmes bit is funny. The Great Game (3.5) is an excellent climax to the first series, with Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbum) delighting in being tormented by an unseen psychopath. I'd forgotten how dark, awkward and tricksy this Mark Gatiss-scripted episode was - even if its excursions into horror are a touch tiresome - with an eerie gimmick that sees Moriarty's goading words panted by sobbing civilians, and a deliciously amoral Holmes. It makes the moment where he finally mellows ("Thank you for what you did then, that was... good") all the more satisfying. But the best bit is still Andrew Scott's eyes flashing as he spits: "I will burn you... I will burn the heart out of you." Cripes. He nearly did, as well.


I chose this picture because it looked a bit red. That's about all it has going for it.

This embryonic, one-hour version of A Study in Pink cost a reported £800,000, but was ditched by the BBC upon completion - and thank goodness for that. Its pacing is probably slicker (presumably that's what happens when you're forced to throw in an extra half hour of material) and the most jarring element of the finished film is missing - how does Sherlock miss the fact that it's the taxi driver first time around? - but the direction, performances and sections of the script stepped up another level before the series reached our screens. Moffat added creepy footage of the shaking, bawling victims, an excellent subplot featuring Mycroft, that superlative gimmick of on-screen writing and the odd great one-liner ("Look, I've got a blanket"), while the music got a welcome upgrade and the reddish, scrappy visuals of this first effort were replaced by a shimmering, icy blue palette that underlined its hero's otherworldliness. Sherlock's reasons for getting into the car with the culprit also changed, from a hypo in the arm to a desperate need to understand how toothy serial killer Phil Davis got his passengers to poison themselves. And his flat looked nicer. Also, Sergeant Donovan was replaced by a better actor. Kudos to the head honchos at the BBC for demanding a re-tooling of the project - I bet it took balls, I know it drew flak from the right-wing tabloids, but it also gave us the greatest argument for retaining the licence fee that I've come across in years*. (3)

*To be honest, I would happily pay the licence fee just for the advert-free football commentary on the radio, I just put this bit in as a pithy sign-off.

Sorry, I have got a bit obsessed with Sherlock.

Silent film. And Buster Keaton singing - Reviews #100

For our 100th reviews round-up, we present The Artist, The Circus and Buster Keaton's spoof of '30s musicals. To mark the centenary, I also seem to have taken up swearing, for which I can only blinking apologise.

CINEMA: The Artist (Michel Hanavicius, 2011) - George Valentin has a problem. The swashbuckling, perma-twinkling charmer is a matinee idol, but he is a silent one, and it is 1927. Within two years, his kind will be obsolete, as the movies learn to talk. On the front-line of this revolution is Peppy Miller, a fresh-faced ingénue whose star is about to go stratospheric. They meet and fall in love, but seem destined to be forever apart. The Artist is really a simple melding of A Star Is Born, Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Blvd. (all movies of the 1950s), but the stroke of genius was to shoot it as a silent film – the finest since Chaplin hung up his Little Tramp costume in 1936. Often, when you see a spoof of early cinema, the overriding feeling is that the people who made it have never seen a silent film. With The Artist, the impression is that the writer, director and stars are immersed in the mythos of the medium, and that of studio system movies as a whole. But while this homage is a spot-on pastiche, it is also a whole lot more than that. The Artist reclaims the mantle of silent film as popular art, while adding a new classic to the canon. There are nods to stars Greta Garbo and Douglas Fairbanks, directors F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, and exuberant, Hollywood-on-film efforts of the ‘20s, like Show People.

It mixes sweet set-pieces – particularly the “tuxedo cuddle”, which wouldn’t be out of place in one of Harold Lloyd’s silent masterpieces – with stylised montages, experimental, expressionistic fantasy sequences and segments of black drama. Jean Dujardin’s heightened performance as the boozy star on the skids is wonderful, while Bérénice Bejo is suitably taken and toothy as the peppy Peppy, and the film features what is comfortably one of cinema’s best five dogs. If there is a flaw, it’s that the pacing of the less visually inventive scenes is sometimes a little off, as if writer-director Michel Hazanavicius hasn’t quite got to grips with handling talky moments in a silent film. Perhaps that’s why The Artist isn’t ultimately as heartwrenchingly powerful as wordless wonders like The Crowd, The Wind or City Lights. But for all that, it’s still the best silent film for 75 years. (3.5)


The Circus (Charles Chaplin, 1928)
– Lovely Chaplin comedy – placing him in an eminently suitable setting – in which the Little Tramp accidentally becomes a star of the Big Top, while having his heart broken by a sweet, abused stunt-rider (Merna Kennedy). Not everything here gels, but it’s full of clever set pieces and hilarious running jokes, and there’s a beautiful love story at its centre. (3.5)


SHORT: Grand Slam Opera (Buster Keaton and Charles Lamont, 1936)
- After being sacked by MGM in 1933, Buster Keaton pitched up at Educational Pictures, a Poverty Row studio that had switched from shooting films for schools to making comedy two-reelers, billing itself as "the spice of the program". He regarded the 16 films he made there, across three years, as a creative low point, but remained proud of two of them: the baseball-themed One Run Elmer, and Grand Slam Opera, universally regarded as the pick of the bunch. It is a delightful shot of musical-comedy silliness in which Buster sings, dances and destroys a bed. The film begins with him on the back of a train - a leitmotif in his work - crooning along to So Long, Elmer (a spoof of the George M. Cohan song, So Long, Mary), as he leaves Arizona to try for stardom in New York. Once there, he attempts to land a break via a radio talent show, and romances pancake chef Diana Lewis by repeatedly asking her, "How about dinner and a show?". The low budget means that a couple of scenes are slightly stilted, while Lewis (later the wife of the great William Powell) is extremely wooden, and the star no longer draws on his famed gracefulness and athleticism. But, and this is one of the biggest buts I've ever had to write, Grand Slam Opera is an exceptionally good film. There's a lovely bit of business in which Buster dances to an ever-changing medley of international dances, a slapstick duel (borrowed from his vaudeville days) where he and a conductor exchange wallops in time to an orchestra, and a fine collection of incidental gags: the object of his affections disappearing on a passing bus, his attempts to hitch a ride on a parked car and the climactic pratfall. The pièce de résistance is a superlative spoof of Fred Astaire's No Strings number from Top Hat. Fred kept Ginger awake with a spectacular tap routine utilising his whole hotel room, before lulling her to sleep via a delicate sand dance. By contrast, Buster clumps around excitably, clambers messily over the furniture - obliterating his bed - and then, while trying to make amends, does quite the opposite. It is one of the great set-pieces of his career, the high point of one of his most improbable triumphs. (3.5)

NB: I watched Grand Slam Opera on the excellent Kino DVD pictured above, but it is available on YouTube, beginning here.

See also: Several of Buster's finest early solo shorts are reviewed here.


Bolt (Byron Howard and Chris Williams, 2008) – Impressive Disney animation about a superhero dog whose life isn’t all it seems. It opens with a bang and fills in the character drama later, with a Pixar-ish sensibility and a welcome lack of cloying sentiment. The hamster’s funny too. (3)


The Public Menace (Erle C. Kenton, 1935)
- Zippy, entertaining Columbia crime comedy about cocky journo George Murphy enjoying an on-off relationship with screwballish manicurist Jean Arthur while trying to get the scoop on crime kingpin Douglass Dumbrille. It's no His Girl Friday, but Arthur is as lovely as ever, Murphy's rival reporters are funny and I like the fact that our hero's plays for the big time are essentially quite rubbish. Especially the one about delivering a heavily-armed gangster to your boss. (3)


Apa (István Szabó, 1966) aka Father – A young boy who lost his father in the Second World War concocts fantasies that the old man was a resistance leader – and an action hero. A potentially brilliant idea is somewhat mangled in the translation. There are poetic stretches – not least the ‘three memories’ – but the film is a little hard to follow and has no real emotional pull, despite its semi-autobiographical material. (2.5)


The Client (Joel Schumacher, 1994) – I have a soft spot for Grisham adaptations, but Schumacher’s tend to be a bit trashy. This one is also saddled with a slightly confusing story, in that the viewer isn’t quite sure what they’re supposed to want to happen. It’s fast-moving and fairly entertaining, with a strong cast, but somewhat lacking in thrills. (2.5)

See also: Schumacher's A Time to Kill, also from a Grisham novel, is reviewed here.


Ocean’s Twelve (Steven Soderberg, 2004) is like a big, long in-joke to which you’re not party. At one point, Julia Roberts’s character has to pretend to be Julia Roberts – oh, the complete opposite of hilarity! It’s rare to come across a film that’s so utterly inept and yet so extraordinarily pleased with itself, with its atrocious plotting, babbling, inane overlapping dialogue and expensive swooping shots of each big name actor’s preening fizzog. Having said that, it is quite a lot less objectionable than A Touch of Class (see below), the 'laser dance' is nifty and I do rather like Matt Damon. (1.5)


The Three Caballeros (Norman Ferguson, 1944) – Bafflingly bad Disney feature in which inveterate pussy hound Donald Duck becomes acquainted with some of the most tedious aspects of Latin American culture. The title number is a wow and there’s some clever integration of live-action and animated footage, but long stretches of the film are just interminably boring. (1.5)


Mr. Woodcock (Craig Gillespie, 2007) – Unfunny, unpleasant ‘comedy’ about self-help guru Seann William Scott having a breakdown when his vindictive old gym teacher (Billy Bob Thornton) starts slamming/porking/boning his mum (Susan Sarandon) - and that varied repetition is the only laugh in the film. This premise was dealt with superbly in Freaks and Geeks; Mr. Woodcock is just a catastrophe. Amy Poehler’s character is an alcoholic, lol. (1)


Glenda Jackson, putting her considerable talents to dubious use.

A Touch of Class (Melvin Frank, 1973) – Can detestably smug adulterer George Segal keep saucy divorcee Glenda Jackson as a mere side dish? Who gives a shit? Appalling romantic comedy-drama in which love blossoms after she says she wishes he’d raped her. (1)



Sherlock: Series 2 (2012) - Ridiculously, almost obscenely good, at least in the first and last episodes, which boasted a couple of the best scripts you're ever likely to find. The middle chapter was the weak link again, with a silly plot and Russell Tovey overacting in a key supporting part. Regardless, this second series is a remarkable achievement, with exceptional direction, performances - particularly by Freeman, Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott - and music. Final episode, The Reichenbach Fall, just raised the bar in terms of British TV drama. (4)


Community (Season 1, 2009-10) – Exceptional post-modern comedy about a self-styled “loveable gang of misfits” who band together at community college after each hitting a crisis in their lives. It begins in a Bilko vein, focusing on selfish, grandstanding former lawyer Joel McHale, but opens up impressively to spotlight a gallery of brilliantly-etched subversive archetypes, including pop culture-obsessed Asperger’s sufferer Danny Pudi, “decent person” Alison Brie, and vacant jock and secret modern dancer Donald Glover. There are a handful of episodes that don’t quite work in this initial batch of 25, but at its best it is as funny as anything I’ve seen on American TV. The most surprising thing of all? Its secret weapon is Chevy Chase, as the racist, gay-obsessed Pierce, who has probably the best two lines of the series in the final episode. (4)


30 Rock: Season 1 (2007-8) - In spots, dangerously funny, though it's not very consistent and has a tendency towards caricature. The cast is excellent, particularly Tracy Morgan, Judah Friedlander and Scott Adsit. (3)


Charlie Brooker's 2011 Wipe (2010) - A bit erratic. Doug Stanhope was atrocious, but the sequence about Freddie Flintoff's Christmas advert made me cry with laughter. (3)


TVM: Hawking (2004) - A portrait of the scientist as a young man, as Steve-O (Benedict Cumberbum) tries to find his place in the world, while dealing with romantic distractions and the onset of his illness. The framing device is absolutely atrocious - another transparent attempt to sell our dramas to the States - the story is unfocused and some of the dialogue sucks so much it creates a black hole... but it's worth it for Cumberbum's excellent central performance, and that stunning scene at the train station. Lisa Dillon, who doesn't get out much, is decent, if somewhat underused, as his beau. (2.5)

Monday, 13 February 2012

Deanna Durbin - Reviews #99

I've talked about Deanna Durbin before, because she is awesome. For a quick potted history, go here. Here are a couple more reviews, dealing with her final film - and then perhaps her oddest.

For the Love of Mary (Frederick de Cordova, 1948) – Former child star Deanna Durbin has at least five classic musical comedies to her name, but she was notoriously critical of her final quartet of movies. "Just take a look at my last four films and you’ll appreciate that the stories I had to defend were mediocre, near impossible," she said in her only post-retirement interview. This, the last, is arguably the best of them (though Something in the Wind has Donald O'Connor doing an earlier version of his Make 'em Laugh routine), as she genuinely gives her all to a film in which she has to wear a fake moustache while serenading Don Taylor in a park with an aria from The Barber of Seville, before falling in a lake. It's a silly but pleasant love square, in which fish expert Taylor, lawyer Jeffrey Lynn and completely unsuitable light leading man Edmond O'Brien (playing a naval officer) compete for Deanna's affections. And as she's a White House switchboard operator, naturally the President and his secretary (Ray Collins) keep sticking their oar in. Presumably the Russians weren't up to much that month. There aren't many laughs, but it's generally entertaining and sustained by Durbin's lovely, unaffected central performance. She was such an appealing presence and she had a wonderful voice – her spellbinding reading of I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen is the unquestioned highlight. It makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. Durbin retired to Paris the next year, aged 27, marrying Charles David, who had directed her in her last truly great film, Lady on a Train. (2.5)


Here's what happened when Jean Renoir tried to make a Deanna Durbin film:

The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (Bruce Manning, 1943) is an uneven, frustrating WWII comedy-drama, worth seeing for Deanna Durbin's sensitive, beguiling performance, the best of her adult career. She plays a schoolteacher and missionary's daughter who comes to America with a gaggle of war orphans and has to pose as the widow of a wealthy sea captain to keep them together. Then the dead guy's grandson (Edmond O'Brien) starts taking an interest. The film was started by Jean Renoir off the back of Swamp Water. He was a fan of Durbin and regarded her as "ravishing", but dropped out of the project after interference from the studio, Universal. (We are talking about a man who didn't finish perhaps his greatest film, Partie de campagne, because it was raining.) His brilliantly-directed rustic footage is used as a flashback and offers a tantalising glimpse of what might have been, before apparent plans for a grown-up, humanist drama somehow morphed into this clumsy amalgam of effective sentiment, forced conflict (the plotting really doesn't make sense) and laboured comedy. The director said later that Durbin was "imprisoned by the genre that made her a success" - one he could not master - and criticised both the script and the manner of improvisation encouraged by producer Bruce Manning. Though two-thirds of the finished film was apparently shot by the French director, much of that was under pressure from executives following round-table discussions. Having taken over, Manning pieced together the existing footage and shot new scenes, including extra musical numbers.

The movie is at its best in the gentler moments, Durbin's nuanced characterisation to the fore, her expressive face articulating fear, resolve and quiet sorrow. There's one particularly striking close-up of the star that has Renoir's pawprints all over it. In contrast, the film's comic interludes seem incongruous and completely unnecessary, aside from a brilliant cameo from Gus Schilling near the end that comes out of nowhere and is hysterically funny. NB to Universal: if you're going to cast aside your potential masterpiece in the name of commerciality, at least try to include a few good jokes. Durbin's music is typically transcendent, particularly the glorious version of Mighty Lak' a Rose, though the numbers are shoehorned in even more arbitrarily than usual (her less inventive films tend to climax with a big charity fundraiser in which she sings). Elsewhere, peacetime makes the propagandist opening a bit of an uncomfortable watch, while time itself has rendered the billing of one young actor as simply "THE CHINESE BABY" slightly unacceptable.

It's not a great film, but for classic film fans it's essential viewing as both a picture of Durbin at the peak of her powers, and a curio: another cautionary tale of what happens when a maverick goes head-to-head with a massive fucking corporation. (2.5)

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Idiocy, Show People and an excruciating Christmas - Reviews #98

In our latest update: the future is run by idiots, a cage fight turns gay and Douglas Fairbanks fences like a five-year-old. You're welcome, world.

Idiocracy (Mike Judge, 2006) - Flawed but fantastic comedy from Mike Judge about an everyman (Luke Wilson) who wakes up in 2505 to find that society has regressed to such an extent that he is now the most intelligent man in the world. It starts off in a pompous, sneery vein, runs a half-hour shorter than intended and even then missteps a few times, but at its best it is extraordinarily clever and funny. Wilson is repeatedly derided as a "fag" for using long words, a stoner doctor tells him that he appears to be "all fucked up" and the corporations of the future run a two-pronged PR assault consisting of sexual favours and greeters who say "I love you". I told you it was clever. The film was dumped by Fox, which presumably objected to the anti-dumbing down message, and it played on barely a hundred screens. It's maddening, but often brilliant. (3)


Bruno (Larry Charles, 2009) - I actually found this funnier than Borat. The staged scenes are tiresome, but the stunts are mostly superb, particularly the talk show, the hunting trip ("That is such a Samantha thing to say, Donny") and the cage fight. And who knew Sinead O'Connor caused homosexuality? (3)


Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro, 2008) - Disappointing follow-up that fixes the main problem with the initial film - its fucking stupid plot - but fails to match it for heart. The singalong in the library is lovely and the Forest God set-piece is spectacular, but as a whole the movie is too cold and aloof to really work. (2.5)


Magicians (Andrew O'Connor, 2007) - Somewhat lacklustre attempt to turn Mitchell and Webb into movie stars. The leads are decent and there are a trio of good running jokes - Mitchell is a murderer, Steve Edge tells anecdotes about jizz, Webb's agent fancies him - but far too few laughs across 100 minutes, and O'Connor's direction is alarmingly bad. When Ozu nailed his camera to the floor and shot from ankle-height, I think there was a reason for it. I'm not sure what O'Connor's excuse is. (2)


The Family Stone (Thomas Bezucha, 2005) is another Yuletide misery-fest, as a gaggle of dislikeable characters gather to ruin one another's Christmas. It's stressful and unfunny, with weird swings in tone, though Luke Wilson isn't bad and Claire Danes works her usual magic in a poorly-written part. Who enjoys films like this? (1.5)


Show People (King Vidor, 1928) - Very appealing silent comedy, with Marion Davies in her element as a wannabe actress who crashes Hollywood, making her name in slapstick before becoming a hopelessly-deluded costume drama star and socialite. William Haines is the clown she never quite gets out of her system. It's slightly bitty and episodic, and Davies's transformation into a massive pain is perhaps too extreme, but it's both funny - I particularly liked Davies's variety of acting faces - and deeply affecting. Davies is aces in the lead, even if Haines is more adept at the quieter moments than the amusing ones and Harry Gribbon gives silent film actors a bad name with an enormous performance as a comedy director. If you know your silent movies, the film is a particular treat, with a vivid portrait of movie-making, neat in-jokes and nice cameos from the likes of Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, helmer Vidor and even Davies, playing herself. (3.5)


The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920) - Exhilarating silent actioner, with Douglas Fairbanks as the masked hero, opposing oppression wherever it is found - specifically in 19th century California. His alter-ego is a sniffly, permanently "fatigued" nobleman with a dirty hanky. The set-up is a bit slow and a few of the plottier scenes drag, but the film is peppered with thrilling set-pieces, culminating in a 10-minute action spectacular where Doug swings from ropes, leaps over walls and is just generally really awesome. He did all his own stunts and his swordplay is hilariously speedy, like a child playing. Great fun. (3.5)


Yes you might well hit yourself in the face.

Wimbledon (Richard Loncraine, 2004) - Insultingly formulaic romantic comedy set around the tennis grand slam, lifted by nice performances from Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst. James McAvoy's character is one of the most poorly written I've ever seen. (2)


Without a Clue (Thom Eberhardt, 1988)
- Pathetic Sherlock Holmes spoof. The premise is OK - Watson (Ben Kingsley) is the real brains, Holmes (Michael Caine) just an actor - and so is the period detail, but there's no feel for the material (they can't even pronounce Lestrade's name correctly) and there are only two laughs: Cookie's drinks cabinet and a drunken Holmes bursting into a meeting, saying that he's pinched a woman's bum. (1.5)

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Review: Josie Long at Harrogate Theatre

Friday, January 27, 2012

A FEW minutes late, sporting her winter look of "Norwegian boy", and "weighing in at between 10 and 12-and-a-half stone depending on how lonely she is", Josie Long bounds into the Studio Theatre.

"I’ve had one hell of a day," she says, offering some traffic-themed apologies and a handful of gags before introducing support act Brigitte Aphrodite.

This singer and poet, clad all in black and boasting a massive personality, treats us to witty, ribald ruminations on the dearth of things to do in Bromley, Kent, drinking herself awake and partaking in sexual congress with a zombie.

Then, after an interval, it’s time for the show proper - and it’s worth waiting for: an endlessly inventive mixture of satire and silliness that juxtaposes the left-field observations of Long’s early act with spiky, impassioned political material that - most importantly - is also wickedly funny.

She adopts a whiny, pleading voice to bemoan the actions of the Conservatives. "They hate the libraries - how can you hate the libraries?" she asks. "Why do they keep trying to sell the forests? You can’t privatise children’s wheelchairs, that’s like what a Bond villain would do."

"I feel like they got together and said: 'Why don’t we set up a 1980s tribute government, I’ve got all the gear’," she adds.

She does a superb routine about what she should have said to a Lib Dem spin doctor on BBC1 programme This Week, and reveals an insecurity about her lack of political knowledge, saying that if she had taken up offers to go on Question Time she would ultimately have broken down wailing: "I’m out of my depth, I’m just a clown."

Her stock of brilliant one-liners includes topical material, like her explanation for Michael Gove’s suggestion that we buy a new royal yacht for the diamond jubilee: "If we give a big enough sacrifice to the Queen, she will ensure a good harvest."

Long’s routines are peppered with four-letter words, but as she cheerily observes: "I have a big, chubby face like a baby, so it doesn’t count. If a baby swears, you’re just glad it spoke."

Her show builds to an impassioned call to activism that invokes the Black Panthers, UK Uncut and Stanley Baldwin - the Conservative Prime Minister who gave a fifth of his wealth to the nation - with Long cheerily concluding: "I think you should go back to where you live and join the EDL", before stressing that this is very much a joke.

Despite the colourful language and left-wing politics, the Harrogate audience only seems uneasy when she claims Ringo Starr was "by far the best-looking of the Beatles", prompting a cry of "No!" from one outraged woman.

The comic does at least acknowledge that Ringo was responsible for "ruining Beatles albums by putting children’s songs in the middle of them."

For the most part, though, this extraordinarily gifted stand-up sticks to political ground.

Affable, accomplished and razor-sharp, her shift into satire has elevated her work to a whole new level.


AFTER the show, I bothered Josie and asked her to say some stuff about Harrogate. She did.

“Last year, after the show, me and my friend Johnny (a former St John Fisher pupil) went for a massive long walk all through Harrogate and it was so beautiful. You live in a beautiful place and the people are very generous and didn’t hold it against me even though I was late.”

I also got mistaken for Brigitte Aphrodite's boyfriend, as I'd been hanging around, looking lost. Apologies to all concerned.
This article was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 25 of the Harrogate Advertiser, February 10, 2012. For the review of Josie's 2010 show, clicky here.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Buster Keaton in shorts - Reviews #97

Last year I set out to watch every one of Buster Keaton's shorts from 1918 to 1923 in order, tracing his development as a comedian and filmmaker. That's all well and good, but I couldn't wait to revisit some of his less heralded shorts from 1920 and '21, when he was first branching out on his own with spectacular results. So I watched a load of them all in a row. I'll get back to the project sometime soon.

Convict 13 (Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline, 1920) - Fun but scattershot early Buster short, a distance beneath his first two solo efforts (The 'High' Sign was shot before, but released the following year). He plays a keen golfer who somehow ends up in prison, where he draws the ire of both the guards and a violent inmate (regular foil Big Joe Roberts) - and is all set to be hanged, until his girl switches the rope for a bungee cord. The volume and quality of the gags is impressive - potting a golf ball, spanking a fish, popping up and down through a gallows' trapdoor - and the thick vein of black, fatalistic humour running through the film is a joy to behold (he did that sort of thing so well), though by Buster's standards the stunts are merely agreeable, rather than amazing, and the story's a bit daft. (3)

The Scarecrow (Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline, 1920) - The first half is a tidy gadget-fest, with Buster and Big Joe aided by a multitude of household inventions, like a multitude of condiments hanging from the ceiling, and a bath that turns into a piano. The second has them fighting over a girl (the bit where Buster trips up Joe and stands on his head is hilarious), and our hero doing a sublime impression of a scarecrow... but - and I don't want to tell Buster how to do his job, as he was rather good at it - at the moment you think it's about to build properly on the groundwork of the opening reel and utilise the gadgets in new, unexpected and hysterical ways, it loses its enthusiasm for the idea, and goes off elsewhere. A shame, as the bit where Buster makes his folding bed and hides in it, whilst being chased through the house by Luke the Dog, is one of the greatest sight gags of his career. And the last half-minute is lovely. (3)

Neighbors (Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline, 1921) - This was the first Buster short I saw and it's a little gem, with a backyard finale you'll never forget. His attempts to marry next-door neighbour Virginia Fox lead to a violent familial feud, his trousers falling down (cue a brilliant chastity gag) and the express need to run from one tenement building to the next in a three-storey 'human tower'. There are a couple of regrettable blackface gags (they're not mean-spirited, but they do make you wince) and some of the bits in the middle don't work, but it's worth it for the eye-popping stuntwork, and a portrait of a genius coming to terms with his talent. (3.5)

The Haunted House (Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline, 1921) - The first half has Buster getting a lot of glue on things (after a typically brilliant opening salvo), the second has him legging it around a supposedly haunted house. To be honest, that joke with the timelock and his clothes doesn't really make sense - as if the master of stuntery wouldn't wriggle out of that one - but not to worry, there are a couple of things here that are truly remarkable. Exhibit A is Buster's delightful puncturing of the fourth wall: running full pelt from the law, he cranes his head into the camera as it passes, giving it a wide-eyed, madcap, Johnny Rotten-ish stare. Exhibit B is the "slide down to Hell" and our hero's reaction as the Devil marks his arrival, before setting his bottom on fire. The material's a touch spotty compared to Buster's greatest shorts, but as usual it's enlivened by some remarkable stuntwork. There is also a bit where the front of a house falls on someone, but they're not stood in the doorway, so they just get squashed. Luckily it's only a theatre set. (3)

Hard Luck (Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline, 1921) - Buster's great lost film, then his great incomplete film and now one of his blackest, funniest, oddest films once more, with the biggest laugh of his career* reinstated at the finish. He plays a spin on Chaplin's Little Tramp: a beaten-down little guy whose attempts to make a buck fail dismally - so he tries to take his own life. Those sequences are clever, but they're also too sad - and possibly in too poor taste - to actually be funny, even if his attempts to hang himself do lead to a brilliant verbal gag later on. Having failed twice to end it all, Buster opts for poison, but instead gets hammered on whisky and ends up leading an armadillo hunt (which he searches for in the sea), befriending several members of the aristocracy (one of whom rather resembles Lady Mary Crawley), being followed by a bear and having a fight with some robbers - utilising that old "fake gunfire" joke of which he was so fond. There's no rhyme or reason behind most of Hard Luck, aside from a rough theme about the redemptive power of booze, but it has a succession of massive laughs in its final two-thirds and much of the stuntwork is just gobsmacking. (3.5)
*Objectively. He recalled patrons still laughing at it as they walked out of the theatre.

The Play House (Buster Keaton, 1921) is best-known for its revolutionary opening, featuring no fewer than 25 Busters appearing in – and attending – an opera house variety show. It's an ingenious sequence, though it's not actually that funny, the big laughs arriving later on as he hacks off a man's burning beard with a fire hose, labels his wife (a twin) with a big felt tip and pretends to be a monkey. (3)

The Paleface (Buster Keaton, 1922) was way ahead of its time, pre-dating Redskin by eight years and Broken Arrow by 28 in its portrayal of Native Americans brutalised by white invaders. Buster's the title character, of course, who wanders into a dispute between natives and dodgy oil barons, and spends the next 20 minutes trying not to get killed. It's pretty rough-and-ready by his standards, but the burning-at-the-stake scenes are funny, the chase sequences are largely successful – with one of them appearing to prefigure the majesty of Seven Chances – and the climactic "two years later” gag is a gem. A note regarding safety: encasing yourself in asbestos is not generally considered a good idea anymore. (3)

The Goat (Buster Keaton and Malcolm St. Clair, 1921) is about as good as movies get – just pure joy. Buster's a luckless tramp who has to use every ounce of his cunning and athleticism to stay one step ahead of the law, after flinging a lucky horseshoe at a policeman's head and then being mistaken for a hardened criminal. One of Buster's few pure chase pictures, it was co-helmed with former Keystone Cops director St. Clair and features two of the best sight gags of his career: his arrival on a train and his exit from a dinner party. (4)

... and I also watched this next short, an experimental affair made the year before Buster's death:

Film (Alan Schneider, 1965) – Eerie, barely successful attempt to transfer Samuel Beckett's genius to the screen, as an old man (Buster Keaton) is menaced by his own terror of observation. The joke with the cats is good, the sequence in which he strokes and then destroys a cherished photograph brings a lump to the throat, and the ending is worth hanging around for… but Beckett seems to have little understanding of the medium and the whole thing feels a lot longer than its 17-and-a-half minutes. (2.5)