Buster Keaton in OUR HOSPITALITY (1923) – Hilarious and perilous

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The following is my entry in The Second Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by the lovely Lea at Silent-ology from Feb. 7-8, 2016. Click on the above banner, and read a variety of blogs related to the movies, TV work, and life of the wonderful comic artist Buster Keaton!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Our Hospitality represents a quantum leap forward for Buster Keaton’s filmmaking. By this point, we’ve grown so accustomed to laughing at Keaton the moment he appears on-screen that when his first few scenes are developed at a leisurely pace, we start to wonder if Keaton will reward our patience. All I can say is: Wait for it.

The story is a take-off on the famous Hatfield-McCoy family feud, here set a few decades back from when it actually happened. Otherwise, the movie is very authentic-feeling. Keaton created his setting based on period photos, had his art director Fred Gabourie make a reproduction of an early, rickety steam locomotive (trains were Keaton’s passion), and also rode on a period-style bicycle. All of this contributes to the movie’s atmosphere, as well as providing the impetus for some inspired gags.

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(Credit for the movie’s direction is given to both Keaton and John G. Blystone, who later got directing credit for Laurel & Hardy’s Swiss Miss and Block-Heads. Since Stan Laurel didn’t take any direction on his own movies any more than Buster Keaton did, it’s not to difficult to guess who the auteur is here.)

The movie begins with a startlingly dramatic prologue showing the on-going feud between the Hatfields and the McCays. When the McCays’ father and a Hatfield brother are killed, Joseph Canfield (Joe Roberts, in his final role before his death a few months after the movie’s release) vows vengeance on the next male McCay, who at present is an infant named John (played by Buster’s son).

Mrs. McCay sends her son to an aunt in New York for safety’s sake, but twenty years later, John (Keaton) returns to handle his late mother’s estate. John is so courtly to Virginia (Natalie Talmadge, then Mrs. Buster Keaton), who rides with him on the train home, that she invites him to her house for dinner. Unfortunately, he discovers too late that she is a Hatfield and that her brothers have blood lust on the brain. The Canfields’ code of honor does not permit them to kill any guest in their house; needless to say, John does everything he can to prolong his stay inside.

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The movie’s final third is nothing less than breathtaking, as the Canfields pursue John to a tall gorge over a river that leads to a waterfall. When Virginia tries to help John and is nearly swept over the waterfall, John’s rescue of her inspires one of the most stunning shots in Keaton’s filmography (there would be plenty more to come). As always, Keaton had a Canfield-like sense of honor and could not allow himself to fake any stunt he thought he could do; in the shot of Virginia’s rescue, Keaton inhaled so much water that a doctor had to be called to give him first aid.

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(It was not Keaton’s only death-defying stunt in the movie. When he first fell into the water, Keaton had been attached to a safety wire, but the wire quickly snapped. Thus, much of Keaton’s peril in trying to save himself wasn’t acting.)

Nevertheless, there are also plenty of laughs in the movie, especially in John and Virginia’s train ride and in John’s machinations to keep from leaving the Canfield home after dinner. Natalie Talmadge, despite her having been regarded as the least thespian of the famous Talmadge sisters (she would never do another movie role), acquits herself admirably as the lone Canfield concerned for John’s life.

Any modern movie that combined such period detail, risible comedy, and eye-popping suspense would probably be regarded as a masterpiece. Come to think of it, there’s little reason not to regard Our Hospitality in the same way.

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#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., Feb. 6: EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)

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Joan Collins plays a real-estate hustler who drags tourists to the outskirts of Florida to sell them swamp land in the mistaken belief that it’s soon to be a major community resort. Doesn’t a woman like that deserve to be overtaken by mutated ants, even if she is Joan Collins? Maybe because she’s Joan Collins??

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The movie’s credits make much of the fact that its story is based on a novel by H.G. Wells, though I doubt that Wells had much to say about either real-estate scams or radioactive waste. But don’t worry, it’s a standard ’70s disaster movie (writ small due to the lack of funding from a major studio). We get the requisite exposition from one-dimensional characters before they get turned into so much ant fodder. And as for Joan…well, the “Dynasty” pilot script must have looked like manna from heaven after starring in this mess!

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So bring your calamine lotion, and get ready to rock with the #SatMat crowd at Twitter.com this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EST!

 

THE ADVENTURES OF BOB & DOUG McKENZIE: STRANGE BREW (1983) – Two Canadian hosers

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The following is my entry in the O Canada Blogathon, being hosted Feb. 1-5, 2016 by the blogs Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Click on the above banner, and read blog entries related to Canadian personalities and subject matter that have contributed to cinema!

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There’s no way you can describe the vibe of “SCTV” (TV series, 1977-84) to anyone who wasn’t in on it to start with. It’s like trying to describe how you felt when you saw the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.”

However, for the pop-culture-history-impaired, “SCTV” was set at an imaginary TV station that allowed for wacko “local” characters as well as dead-on parodies of any major film or TV show you’ve ever seen. Since the show was produced in Canada, Canadian TV decided they needed two minutes of Canadian content each week. Thus were born Bob and Doug MacKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas), two toque-wearing siblings who blathered on about the virtues of beer and back bacon.

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“Bob and Doug Mackenzie” were like “SNL’s” “Wayne’s World” in the early 1990’s. The first time I saw them, I completely did not get them. After that, I couldn’t wait for their next appearance.

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All that is by way of saying that Strange Brew is about as funny a movie version of the Mackenzie Bros. sketches as you could ask for. The movie begins predictably (and hilariously) with Bob and Doug trying and failing miserably to move their “Great White North” TV segment into feature films. (The moment where Doug does the “movie theme” kills me every time.)

From there, the movie goes on to a half-baked plot about the brothers uncovering espionage at the local brewery (run by Paul Dooley and Ingmar Bergman veteran Max von Sydow, neither of whom seems to have any idea how they got into this movie). Basically, it plays like a Cheech & Chong movie for the 1980’s, with beer taking the place of illicit drugs.

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That said, it manages to come up with a fair number of laughs, as when the Mackenzies take brief digs at Star Wars, or when their dog “Hosehead” unexpectedly saves the day at movie’s end.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Mackenzie milieu, the DVD of the movie will help you out. It has an old “SCTV” Mackenzie sketch, as well as a brief but funny animated version of the brothers.

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Great comedy can never be properly explained to the uninitiated. On that basis, Strange Brew is a classic.

THE GANGSTERS ALL HERE Live Tweet #Noirvember movie for Sat., Nov. 28: Paul Henreid in THE SCAR (1948)

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This week on The Gangsters All Here, it’s a two-for-one special as Paul Henreid — best known to film buffs as Victor Laszlo, the good guy in Casablanca — does a complete 180 as a villain and his doppelganger in a film-noir entry, The Scar (also previously released as Hollow Triumph).

(WARNING: Spoilers follow!)

Heinreid (who also produced the movie) plays recently paroled criminal John Muller. Muller wastes no time reverting to his old way, rounding up his old gang and planning a heist on a high-looted and well-protected casino. When that project works out less than swimmingly, Muller retreats to another city, where he discovers he has an uncanny resemblance to a local psychologist named Victor Bartok (also played by Henreid). Indeed, the only major physical difference between the two is a prominent scar on Bartok’s face. But heck, if Muller can ditch his own trashy life and take over someone else’s tony existence, he’s not going to let a little thing like a facial scratch stop him, is he?
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On a scale of 1 to 5 fannies, this movie gets a 4. I would give it a 5, but frankly, that business about the scar gets a little hazy in the movie’s second half. However, that won’t deter you from enjoying powerhouse performances from Henreid as well as Joan Bennett as Bartok’s seen-it-all secretary. And if you look really closely, your eyes will pop at the sight of Jack Webb in the early role of a hitman who’s nicknamed “Bullseye”! Goodness, what would Joe Friday have to say about that?

IN & OUT (1998) – Coming out was never so funny

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After I attended a screening of In & Out, I went to a local pizza joint, where I ran into a woman whom I’d seen at the screening. I asked the woman for her opinion of the movie, and she launched into a diatribe about how Hollywood movies promote homosexuality. That’s kind of sad, because I think the movie isn’t so much about promoting a lifestyle (whatever that means) as being true to yourself.

In & Out is loosely based upon Tom Hanks’s first Oscar acceptance speech, where he thanked a gay drama teacher of his. In real life, the teacher was already out of the proverbial closet. In In & Out, Kevin Kline plays Howard Brackett, a teacher who’s a week away from getting married to a fellow teacher (Joan Cusack). Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), an actor and former student of Brackett’s, blurts out Brackett’s gayness during his own Oscar acceptance speech, turning Brackett into the latest media celebrity.

The movie is probably a gay man’s dream of the perfect “outing.” (The screenwriter, Paul Rudnick, is a gay playwright.) That said, why shouldn’t it happen this way? Everyone in Howard’s life has trouble accepting the news, but in the end, they continue to accept him. Along the way are two riotous scenes: one where Howard listens to a self-help masculinity tape and ends up boogeying the night away, and another where Howard is forced to confront his conscience in the form of a Hollywood TV reporter (Tom Selleck).

The movie starts out as a very fey comedy along the lines of The Birdcage (which, unlike most of America, I despised). But the further along it goes, the better and better it gets. Frank Oz, no slouch in the directing department (Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?), finds just the right tone for the movie — not too preachy, not too farcical. Rudnick’s dialogue has the delicious feeling of saying a lot of things that should be said, about homosexuality and other topics.

And what a stellar cast. Cusack and Dillon never make a wrong move. Bob Newhart (as Howard’s flustered principal) and Selleck have probably never been better in a movie. And Kevin Kline’s physicality is put to best use here, particularly in that dance scene. I don’t know how gays and/or uptight types will find his performance, but I found it perfectly believable and wonderful.

You don’t have to agree with the viewpoint of In & Out to enjoy it. Towards the end of the movie, everyone in it “comes out” in one sense or another. The only lifestyle the movie seems to be promoting is honesty. Of course, that makes some people uncomfortable, too.