#310- The General

Quick recap:  Johnnie, played by Buster Keaton, is on a one man mission to rescue a locomotive from the Union soldiers who stole it. As always, hijinks ensue.

MRW school is getting close to starting again 

Fun (?) fact: This movie is based off of a much less hilarious incident during the Civil War. Union soldiers stole a train dubbed ‘The General’ and drove it north, all the while destroying power lines and train tracks. They were eventually caught by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest ( who founded the KKK). The men were found guilty and hanged.

reality is a tad bit darker than I imagined it to be

My thoughts: I enjoyed The General much more than my last Buster Keaton film, Steamboat Bill Jr. I cheered on Johnnie from the very beginning because he was just so darn likeable. Than I realized he was on the Southern side of the war, meaning I was basically cheering for slavery. But then I remembered the North eventually won, so it’s ok to support a small victory like this.

Keaton made me laugh much more this time around, especially during a scene involving a cannon. For the first shot he is careful to put in the correct amount of gunpowder but when the cannonball nearly blows up his own train, he says ‘screw it’ and poured the whole keg of powder. There was only a minimum of slapstick in this film, although considering it is a silent film, most of the gags are still visual. The General seems like more of a mature film than other silent ones I’ve watched- the plot is succinct and action makes up a large part of the run time, because what’s the point in having several minutes devoted to watching the actors’ mouths move?

I was most surprised by how in depth I got to understand Johnnie’s character. Most silent films have archetypes that are easily identifiable but they don’t stick around for long. This movie is just the beginning to showcase how films can be used as a character study. The very first scene shows Johnnie hard at work as an engineer and then as he walks to his girlfriend’s house, two little kids follow him and mimic his every move. He doesn’t mind it, although he gets a little annoyed when he wants some privacy time with his love. It’s such a little moment but it says so much about his character. And the ending sealed the deal for me. Johnnie is finally hailed a hero and it was so sweet to see him finally get his recognition.

Final review: 5/5

Up next: Good Morning, Vietnam

#309- Destry Rides Again

Quick recap: Destry, played by James Stewart, plans to whip a Wild West town into shape without the use of guns or regular beatings.

Who could say no to someone with such sharp fashion sense?

Fun (?) fact: In a continuation of me not always being able to tell Gary Cooper from James Stewart, Cooper was originally offered the role but turned it down because he wanted more money. Even movie executives were aware that the two actors are basically interchangeable.

Seriously, James Stewart is adorable and I kind of love him now.

My thoughts: We’ve got another Western! This one is different because it apparently parodies the classic Western, although I didn’t really see that. Most of the movie, especially the beginning with everyone shooting their guns in the air and punching random people, reminded me of a few weird trips to Six Flags. I guess the characteristic of Destry not owning guns was different, but he seemed to threaten with them a lot or just make his other deputies do it for him. I thoroughly enjoyed myself,don’t get me wrong, and I was glad to see this was much more lighthearted than the spaghetti Westerns I’ve been watching as of late. But it’s the plot holes that eventually got to me, as they always do.

The main lesson in Destry Rides Again, if there is one, is that violence isn’t always the answer. Destry’s father was a sheriff with a huge reputation of whipping towns into shape and here comes his son who doesn’t carry guns, always has a story about someone who learned a lesson and prefers milk over alcohol. But the thing is, the audience never really sees  Destry’s plan come into action so it’s hard to tell whether violence would’ve worked just as well. The villain, Kent, bullies everyone from the beginning and Destry always throws him off somehow, like conceding Kent has won a ranch in an obviously fixed poker game. It made me think there was a huge complicated plan to win the ranch back but there really wasn’t. Destry decided to focus on finding the body of the previous sheriff to indict Kent but even that continued to backfire. The only thing he had a hand in was wooing Frenchy, the town’s loose woman and causing her to rally the women to put a stop to the madness. It was a great twist and I loved how pissed off the wives were, but that wasn’t Destry’s plan. He couldn’t have known that would happen. And yet, at the end of the movie he is considered a hero and loved by all.

I really loved James Stewart’s portrayal of Destry. I thought the ‘aw,shucks’ personality would grate on me, but it never did. Marlene Dietrich, who played Frenchy was also great, although the musical numbers didn’t do much for me. She really played up her accent so the songs were hard to understand sometimes. Still, the performances were entertaining and I enjoyed watching something a little light for once.

Final review: 4/5

Up next: The General

 

#308- Pickup on South Street

Quick recap: A pickpocket unknowingly intercepts some microfilm that was about to be given to the Communists. Now he must decide whether he is going to stay a two-bit felon or move on up to full on traitor status.

it’s a film-noir so expect plenty of sass from this dame

Fun (?) fact: In the French and German versions of the film, the dialog is changed completely and turns into a story about drug dealing.

My thoughts:Apparently, pickpocketing was one of the worst crimes one could commit in New York City in the early 50s. Skip McCoy, the thief with the heart of gold (or something) had already been convicted of stealing 3 times before and one more time would send him to the chair. When my mom’s wallet was stolen in Chicago a few weeks ago, we dutifully reported it even though we knew that sucker was long gone.

Pickup on South Street was a wild ride but overall a weak addition to the film-noir genre. There were several thrilling scenes and violence galore but a spying ring just felt like a letdown. The Communists were bad news but by the end this felt more like a propaganda film for the Red scare than a true film-noir. Part of my issue is that I never really bought into Skip McCoy as a hero. Not only was he a pickpocket but he was violent towards the girl he stole from and then made out with her too, which was I guess a thing back then. Candy, the love interest, had her own issues and I found myself internally screaming on her behalf for continuing to choose such bad guys to fall in love with. In the end, Skip and Candy end up together and we are made to believe this is a good thing but realistically we know there is no good way this relationship will go.

My favorite part of the film and the reason I liked the movie so much was because of Moe, the stool pigeon. I really wish they had cut out all of the Commie BS and mystery and focused on this woman. Moe spent her life selling ties as a front and keeping tabs on all the crooks and criminals. When the police needed help, they called her in and she set a price to give info. I loved the symbiotic relationship she had with the crooks and especially Skip. Neither were happy with the other’s life choices but both understood the need to make a living. For all this, Moe was saving up for a nice burial plot when she died. When of the Commies offed her, Skip paid for a funeral so she wouldn’t be sent to Potter’s field.

Final review: 4/5

Up next: Destry Rides Again

#307- Spartacus

Quick recap: Born a slave in Roman times, Spartacus leads a rebellion to free all people.

Look, no one’s denying that it’s torture. But jumping over blades is a great workout, I bet.

Fun (?) fact: Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, feeling saucy, originally wrote a scene in which Crassus seduces Antoninus by asking if he preferred ‘snails to oysters’. Seeing as that is blatantly sexual, the whole thing was cut until the restoration in 1991. Although the film had survived, the audio hadn’t. Tony Curtis, who played Antoninus was up for dubbing the lines but Laurence Olivier, who played Crassus was not, seeing as how he was dead. His widow remembered that Anthony Hopkins did a spot on impression of him, though, so he filled in the few lines.

Just a dude oiling another dude and talking shellfish. No biggie.

My thoughts: My movie opinions are absolutely swayed by how I choose to view them. A movie watched on a cell phone late at night is not the same as sitting in a dark theater. There have been plenty of films on this list that I would’ve given a much higher rating to had I watched them with an audience or at least somewhere on a big screen. Spartacus is proof of this. I had the privilege of seeing at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, a wonderfully old place. Before the movie started, we were treated to a man playing the organ, which set the mood for the epic we were about to watch. From the second the names flashed on the screen, people clapped and cheered and I knew I was in the perfect place. I wish all movie experiences could be like this one was.

At over a 3 hour run time, Spartacus is a true epic. It’s directed by Stanley Kubrick which I never would’ve guessed, although his attention to detail is very obvious here. I was entertained every second, which is a very difficult feat to pull off in these long films. I can’t think of any scene that felt out of place or filler material. The acting was phenomenal, of course, especially Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) who was able to make me forget about his chin for a few moments.

The more I stare at it, the weirder it looks

I didn’t know much about the movie going in, except for the famous ‘I am Spartacus’ scene ( which was kind of cheesy,tbh), so I had no idea how it would end. After the big battle, I kept expecting a miracle to happen, maybe with Varinia saving the day or something. I loved how dark it got in that final scene, Varinia holding up their son to a dying Spartacus on the cross. As much as I would’ve loved for them to live happier ever after, it was so much more powerful this way. And, honestly, it makes the film Braveheart look like garbage. The plot is basically the same with both heroes sacrificing themselves at the end, but I really sympathized more with Spartacus, who felt a need to free his people, compared to William Wallace who only fought once his love was killed.

Spartacus is meant to be seen like I watched it a few nights ago. I can imagine Stanley Kubrick spitting in disgust at the thought of how we mostly watch movies now. It should be an experience. Something to value.

Final review: 5/5

Up next: Pickup on South Street