Image

Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

Lucky Number Slevin

Lucy Liu), Slevin gets mistaken for Nick and sucked
into a plot involving joint gambling debts to two feuding, equally
paranoid and security-conscious crime lords known as the Boss (Morgan
Freeman) and the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley).

In order to erase his debt to the Boss, Slevin is charged with
bumping off Yitzchok (Michael Rubenfeld), the gay son of the Rabbi. The
Rabbi, meanwhile, has his own demands of Slevin. It soon becomes
apparent, meanwhile, that “Smith” is actually Mr. Goodkat, a famously
discreet assassin, and he has strange and murky plans involving Slevin,
who must in turn start thinking on his feet in an effort to turn the
tables on those that would take advantage of him.

McGuigan also directed Hartnett in Wicker Park, another movie
on one level about the convergence of identity and opportunity, and he
made use there of all sorts of slurry, obfuscating devices. Here,
though, he has material whose ingrained archness better matches some of
the things he’s trying to do
. Jazzy interstitials make short work of
many a character and scene, and the film’s opening preface from Smith
spells out its diversionary gambit. The set design is all flirty ’60s
décor, full of pop and lines of distinction. What’s left, though
incredibly arch, is energetic and charismatic.

Hartnett gets to play askance and off-kilter, something he does
well, and that many of his blander roles don’t afford him the
opportunity to do. The meet-cute banter with Liu is fun if tonally
dubious
, harkening back to the days of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
At one point Lindsey compliments Slevin by saying he reminds her of
James Bond; this later entails a discussion of whether or not this
really was a compliment, based on which Bond she was talking about. If
Willis, in full-on stoic mode, is merely a placeholder here, you don’t
fault him too much given the size and function of his part in this
rangy ensemble. As slick and masturbatory as it is freewheeling and
fun
, Lucky Number Slevin is a crime caper predicated on head feints. If that bothers you, don’t play its slots. (MGM/Weinstein Company, R, 110 mins.)

The Buster Keaton Collection

As
the DVD market gets flooded with old-school product, cineastes and
average consumers alike wanting to bone up on their classic cinema
sometimes face a conundrum in unlocking the best way to jump back in
time. Point of entry can be everything. Case in point: The Buster Keaton Collection,
which culls together two hearty handfuls of 17-to-20-minute shorts from
the legendary silent-era screen comedian.
One would think this would be
a godsend for those seeking some one-stop shopping, but upon further
examination, this compendium spotlights a more fallow period from later
in his career.

The advent of the talkie meant changes for all
in Hollywood, but among those who suffered the bumpiest transition was
Keaton. Spanning a few years from the late 1930s through the middle of
1941, the somewhat arbitrarily ordered shorts
included herein are: Nothing But Pleasure, General Nuisance, The Taming of the Snood, His Ex Marks the Spot, Mooching Through Georgia, Pardon My Berth Marks, Pest From the West, So You Won’t Squawk, She’s Oil Mine and His Spook Speaks.
Most are helmed by producer-director Jules White, who also made many
noted collaborations with the Three Stooges, and it’s easy to spot the
infusion of that brand of broad physical humor here, which is
incongruous with the best of Keaton’s work, and certainly out of step
with what’s most synonymous with his name.

The appealingly unassuming nature of Keaton’s sly physical comedy is present only in fleeting morsels here. 1941’s She’s Oil Mine (a reworking of The Passionate Plumber)
perhaps best exemplifies old-school Keaton; he silently squares off in
a duel with Eddie Laughton, who does the talking. Others of the shorts
— all filmed as works-for-hire for Columbia — though, like Mooching Through Georgia and The Spook Speaks, fall flat, at least for those wanting a true slice of brilliance.

Packaged in a cardboard sleeve in turn housed in a pull-out cardboard case, The Buster Keaton Collection
does a nice job of preserving the original, full-screen,
black-and-white presentations. The audio, meanwhile, has been
re-mastered in English Dolby 2.0 (with optional subtitles), eliminating
the native hiss that can mar even the most sterling visual brush-ups of
classic material. Audio commentaries from assorted film historians
pepper each inclusion.
Ed Watz’s track on The Taming of the Snood is probably the best, though all provide important contextual information and insight.

There’s also a 24-minute documentary, titled “Buster Keaton: From
Silents to Shorts,” that gives an overview of the actor’s vaudeville
days and delineates his downward trajectory in the face of the rise of
“talkies.” Rounding out the supplemental fare is an original screenplay
reproduction of She’s Oil Mine included within, featuring a
nice, additional introduction by Melissa Talmadge Cox, Keaton’s
granddaughter. For completists this is definitely worth a look, but for
others it’s not the best introduction to Keaton. C+ (Movies) B (Disc)

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Before
gross-out humor became the almost-exclusive dominion of mainstream
studio comedies, there was significant dabbling in much darker and more
nuanced terrain
, as evidenced by this 1949 treat from director Robert
Hamer. One of the more barbed laughers of its era, Kind Hearts and Coronets
centers on an embittered young commoner who develops a case of
birthright tunnel vision, working to secure by any means necessary what
he thinks is his rightful heritage — the dukedom of an aristocratic
family. In doing so, the movie lays one of the first cornerstones for
an entire generation of objectionable film protagonists to follow.

Dennis
Price stars as Louis Mazzini, an impoverished shop attendant who
becomes determined to avenge he and his mother’s unjust disinheritance
by bumping off all those in front of him in the D’Ascoyne line of
hierarchy. Long before Eddie Murphy’s latex-aided adventures as Sherman
Klump and his brethren, and even Peter Sellars’ multiple turns in Dr. Stangelove,
Alec Guinness would dazzle in playing all eight doomed characters,
imbuing each with small but telling and amusing details. From gunplay
to a hot-air-balloon mishap, there are more deadly permutations on
display here than in Clue.

Given the production code of the time, the satirical film’s ending
was altered in the United States, nipping in the bud any mortifying
reading that crime might pay. (That swapped ending is glimpsed herein.)
Still, Hamer and John Dighton’s sparkling adaptation of Roy Horniman’s
novel chiefly pulls Kind Hearts and Coronets along, with its
mordant wit and some crackling dialogue. The crisp characterizations,
though, are what really make it sing; Price gives the performance of
his career
.

Packaged in a double-sized Amray case, Criterion’s two-disc release
features a new, restored, high-definition digital transfer presented in
1.33:1 full screen, preserving the original aspect ratio of the film’s
release. The monaural sound mix satisfies the basic requirements of the
relatively straightforward audio presentation, and the more base DVD
extras include the movie’s original theatrical trailer and a
substantial gallery of production and publicity photographs. Additional
English subtitles are also available. The second disc of supplemental
material, though, is where the real meat is found.
A feature-length
television documentary on the history of Ealing Studios is interesting
for Anglophiles, but even better is a rare, 1977 talk show appearance
by Guinness (clocking in at a whopping 70 minutes!)
in which he
discusses, amongst other things, his work on a little movie called Star Wars
and a chance meeting with James Dean a week before his death. A 14-page
insert booklet with an essay by film critic Philip Kemp rounds things
out nicely. A- (Movie) B+ (Disc)