Friday, February 24, 2017

While all of Buster Keaton's feature length silent films are already on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber, the distributor as partnered with Lobster Films to bring newly restored editions of Keaton's classic works complete with brand new special features. Even if you already have the original releases, these are worth picking up for any fans of Keaton's work (The General is worth the purchase for Joe Hisaishi's new score alone).

I'm not sure there's another comedy out there more perfect than Buster Keaton's The General. Keaton stars as a southern train engineer who is rejected from the military due to his unique skills. His girlfriend tells him she will never marry him until she sees him in uniform. But when she is kidnapped by Northern spies who hijack her train, Keaton sets out to save her and his beloved engine, the General, from enemy hands.

The General is both a comedy and a war movie, managing to be both hilarious and thrilling at the same time. It is the pinnacle of Keaton's genius for physical gags, providing him the grandest scale of his career. This is one of those films that never fails to make my jaw drop, no matter how many times I've seen it. Keaton's prowess for stunts and deadpan physical comedy is on full display here. What he manages to do with that train simply boggles the mind. Without the aid of models or CGI, Keaton rides on the cowcatcher of a real train, frantically moving discarded railroad ties out of the way. He holds train cars together. Trains run into each other and fall through burning bridges.  The General flies from one marvelous set-piece to another, barely stopping to catch it breath. Yet it never feels overly busy or overstuffed. Keaton was never better than he was here, combining popular melodramatic structure of the time with his own brand of slapstick in brilliant ways, all the while maintaining his trademark deadpan stone face. It's not just one of the greatest films of the silent period, but of all time, and arguably the greatest comedy ever made.

Buster Keaton's first feature (if you don't count The Saphead, which was neither conceived nor directed by Keaton), Three Ages is an ambitious parody of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, following three different love stories over three different eras. Keaton plays three different unlucky-in-love saps; a caveman, a Roman centurian, and a modern man, all trying to woo women in spite of her family's preference for a wealthier, stronger man.

I love the little details of this thing. The roman numeral license plate and spare wheel on the back of Keaton's chariot, for example. While Three Ages is not Keaton's best feature (it often feels like three short films stitched together), it's filled with such wonderful visual wit. Many of Keaton's best gags are of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety. The film itself is not in the best shape, even in Kino's new Blu-Ray edition, but the film has its charms, nevertheless. Keaton had pretty much perfected the short comedy by this point, and while he isn't quite able to sustain the jokes over the course of a feature yet, especially when they are essentially repeated three times across the film, but his eye for comedic detail remains unparalleled.

THE GENERAL -★★★★ (out of four)
THREE AGES - ★★½ (out of four)

Now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.
Joan Crawford earned her first and only Oscar for Michael Curtiz's towering film noir, in which she plays a mother determined to give her spoiled daughter the lavish lifestyle she demands at all costs. Mildred Pierce takes the classic Hollywood women's picture and turns it into a dark, noirish melodrama, examining issues of class and feminine ambition.

Shot during WWII but released after the war ended, the film was made at a time when women were joining the workforce in record numbers. Pierce's daughter, Veda, is embarrassed by her hardworking mother, even when her success gives her the means to give Veda (Ann Blythe) the high class life she craves. Veda is cruel, manipulative, and vain. Mildred is tough and hardworking, willing to trade in her dignity in order to provide for her children. The men in the film skirt around the periphery, especially the three men in Mildred's life - Wally (Jack Carson), a well-meaning lawyer whose naked affection for Mildred makes him the perfect patsy for her ambitions; Bert (Bruce Bennett), her first husband, who sees Veda for what she really is; and then there's Monte (Zachary Scott), a penniless heir from a wealthy family whose duplicitousness threatens to tear mother and daughter apart.

Mildred Pierce is above all a tale of just how far a parent will go to protect and provide for their children, but more than that, its an examination of class prejudice and society's disdain for working women, even successful ones. It was a film ahead of its time, taking the melodrama of the novel and turning it into a hardboiled, female-led noir, where the women aren't femme fatales but working stiffs willing to do what it takes to achieve the American dream. While Crawford is never really believable as a working girl, her magisterial presence in her severely squared off fur coat anchors the film with a kind of raw anguish that is hard to shake.

The film looks glorious on Blu-Ray, its inky-black shadows creeping in on Mildred like her daughter's unchecked evil. With her every whim catered to, Veda is cinema's ultimate spoiled child, an ungrateful wretch who can't even see the irony of her own degradation as a showgirl, which she sees as perfectly acceptable over her mother's restaurant business. In that regard, Mildred Pierce is a cautionary tale for parents, where overprotected children become monsters and the hard work parents put into raising their children goes unappreciated. It remains one of Hollywood's great melodramas, a rich and psychologically astute work whose power still resonates today.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New conversation with critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito
  • Excerpt from a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show featuring actor Joan Crawford
  • Joan Craw­ford: The Ultimate Movie Star, a 2002 feature-length documentary
  • Q&A with actor Ann Blyth from 2006, presented by Marc Huestis and conducted by film historian Eddie Muller at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco
  • Segment from a 1969 episode of the Today show featuring Mildred Pierce novelist James M. Cain
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith