The General (1926) Review

When Union spies steal an engineer’s beloved locomotive, he pursues it single handedly and straight through enemy

Out of all the silent era comedians, Buster Keaton is notable for his lavishly large set pieces and there is perhaps no better example of this then 1926’s The General. With the restrictions of silent era technology, most humor of the time was slapstick, because only a visual was required. Most of the time slapstick is relatively simplistic in its presentation and sophistication; however that doesn’t mean you can’t put a good plot around it and that’s exactly what Keaton did. The General is fairly simplistic. Obviously. The acting, production, etc… isn’t the best. Obviously. But! Keaton does his finest to stretch the limitations of the time to their max.

Keaton’s protagonist is a breath of fresh air from the Chaplin copies that perforated this era; he’s kind, brave, but still clumsy. Keaton’s mugging to the camera may be generic by the times standards, but on occasion his reactions to all the crazy shit going on around him is priceless.

The movie progresses through a civil war landscape (on the southern side nonetheless) with the danger of war always present. This plays back into the plot, but what it really achieves is a sense of tension. The people around Keaton are willing to kill him and this leads to genuine moments where you wonder how he’s going to pull this off and stay alive. The only problem is that when Keaton isn’t on screen, this war backdrop proves immensely boring, but if you’re willing to wait just a little bit longer Keaton will pop back up just in time to provide a few smirks.

This movie is most likely not going to get you to laugh out loud, but chuckles and smirks will abound. The choreography of many of the slapstick scenes is truly astonishing, because they are so sophisticated compared to the rest of the movie. Mock silent film all you want, they had slapstick down to a fucking science. The first act is set piece after set piece and this really is astonishing, not only does it convince you of the Keaton’s comedic genius, but also his general filmmaking genius, since it truly feels like a train chase. Now to be fair this could also be the work of his co-director Clyde Bruckman, but alas we’ll never know.

The General is not your average slapstick movie. This one is big. It’s grand not only in price but scale. The ending train scene is a great example of this, as well as the other primitive effects. This movie was a remarkable achievement at the time and still stands as a classic to this day. If you want to dip your toes into silent film, this is a great way to start and if you’re a silent film fan, then you should have seen this by now.

Seven Samurai (1954) Review

A poor village under attack by bandits recruits seven unemployed samurai to help them defend

Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is considered a classic of Japanese cinema and has spawned many American copies, such as The Magnificant Seven and A Bugs Life. But how does this 1954 movie hold up today? Quite well actually. For its length (over 3 hours) and place at the beginning of Japanese cinema, Seven Samurai has an engaging plot, unique characters and genuine moments of tragedy, comedy, and tension.

Seven Samurai has the plot of a film you’ve seen before. It’s spawned so many clones, that it’s nice to see the original in all its glory. That being said, it’s not perfect. The films pacing is rather uneven, with the first act moving at a very quick pace, which was refreshing until the second act started dragging on way too slowly. The films length definitely is correlated to this and maybe if some cutting had been done to that second act, a more compressed and smooth story could have been created. That’s not to say that the second act is bad, it still upholds the good writing and acting the other two have, but it just slows down to concentrate on various smaller issues. Great for character development, but not as necessary as it one might think.

The titular seven samurai are all unique characters, with solid performances backing them up. You’ll never get confused as to which samurai is which, even if you’ll never remember their names. The villagers are rather interesting too, in that they aren’t played up as the helpless, innocent victims. To the contrary, Kurosawa portrays them as human to a fault, selfishly trying to keep what they have, even if it means betraying their protectors. This fascinating dynamic between them and the samurai and how it changes is a highlight of the movie

Kurosawa’s brilliant directing is truly something to behold, and way beyond its time. The way he shoots action, comedy, and the haunting ending scene are all extremely effective. A lot of older movies, especially foreign ones, loose their effectiveness when watched today because it feels so distant. Kurosawa’s comedy is funny, particularly the scene with the horse. His action is exciting and nowhere nearly as confusing as the post-Transformers action sequences of today. In fact his use of different frame rates to either speed up the action or slow down the dramatic deaths is really effective and not as cheesy as one would think. His drama is very real; as he sets the mood well and with his strong actors delivers true heartbreaking moments. He’s also not afraid to let you be confused, as there are a few scenes where you really sit there wondering what’s going on, just like the characters are, until it’s finally explained to you.

The hardest thing for someone going into this film is the cultural difference. The names are hard to remember, there are references to things you won’t know, and a lot of the history involved that just won’t make sense. It’s the side effect of being a westerner, but try and keep an open mind. As you watch the movie, you begin to understand how this world works, just with any other movie and soon you’re just as immersed as with the latest blockbuster.

I saw this film on VHS and you know what… it wasn’t that bad. The subbing was ok, even if it wasn’t present for every line and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything because… I wasn’t. This film isn’t widescreen so don’t bother looking for a copy like that. I wouldn’t recommend pirating this movie, as it truly deserves a non-pixilated watching. If you can get this on Blu-Ray or DVD because it’s totally worth it, and you will want to show this classic to everyone you know. If you can get past the length, and the very nature of the film being a 50s Japanese movie, then you should have a remarkable viewing experience ahead of you.