The General (1927)
Arguably the greatest of Buster Keaton's silent comedies, The General
begins with a single, brilliantly sustained premise and works it into an engaging story that combines edge-of-your-seat excitement, stunningly conceived stunts and sight gags, spectacular set pieces, touching sentiment, and a rousing finale.
Essentially a chase film, The General
tells the Civil War-era tale of stoic young Confederate railroad engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton), whose precious train is stolen-and beloved Annabelle (Marion Mack) kidnapped-by Union spies. Commandeering another train to give chase, Gray winds up sallying deep into enemy territory, riding by the seat of his pants as he confronts obstacles and difficulties at every turn, often with only moments to act and split-second timing needed to avoid disaster.
Watching Keaton in action, one can easily believe he was one of Jackie Chan's main inspirations. Yet in his deadpan understatement Keaton was perhaps unique among physical comedians. Misleadingly nicknamed the Great Stone Face, Keaton was in fact a subtle actor, but didn't go for broad emotion or histrionics.
Part of The General's
strength is its historical persuasiveness; the look of the film was meant to evoke Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs, and though a comedy The General
has an authentic period feel unmatched by dramatic Civil War films.
Content advisory: Wartime excitement and action; a sequence involving large-scale battlefield violence. Fine for kids.
Stuart Little 2 (2002)
A thoroughly entertaining family film, Stuart Little 2
is smarter, funnier, more heartfelt, and more exciting than the amiable 1999 original. In fact, it manages to be both more satisfying for adults and more kid-friendly than the original. As an added plus, Stuart Little 2
can be enjoyed without ever seeing the first film.
I'm not a great fan of the original children's book by E. B. White, but Stuart Little 2
, like its predecessor, isn't so much adapted from the book as built around homages to it. Individual events are taken from the book, but the order, context, and meaning of these events has been completely revised.
In the first film, the main impression created by the Little clan was of quirky retro unhipness and preternatural good cheer. In the sequel, Stuart's parents reveal a more endearing and charming side, and make their family life genuinely appealing.
Besides standard platitudes about looking on the bright side and having confidence in yourself, Stuart Little 2
deals with the moral issues of lying (and, to a lesser degree, stealing) versus honesty and integrity. The message that Lying is Bad comes across with welcome clarity (contrast Big Fat Liar
, which couldn't commit to anything stronger than "The Truth Isn't Overrated"). If only all sequels were this good.
Content advisory: Mild menace; mild scatological references; recurring lying to parents.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959)
One of the 15 films on the Vatican film list in the category "Religion."
The grandest of Hollywood's classic biblical epics, William Wyler's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
doesn't transcend its genre, with its emphasis on spectacle and melodrama, but it does these things about as well as they could possibly be done.
holds up better than such productions as The Ten Commandments
in part because the biblical subject itself is reverently left in the background and another more appropriate tale is the subject of its melodrama. Though Christ's life is traced from his birth, to his hidden life, to his public ministry, to his passion and death, we never see his face or hear his voice.
is a classic revenge epic leavened with an edifying message of forgiveness. Charlton Heston stars as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince whose boyhood friendship with a Roman officer turns to enmity over politics and betrayal. The classic chariot race remains a brilliant action set piece.
Although not a profound spiritual film, Ben-Hur
does include a strikingly evocative image of Christ's redemptive death: Jesus' blood pools at the foot of the cross and, mixed with the rainwater from a sudden deluge, runs down the mountain and over the land, touching the feet of Judah Ben-Hur as he walks unknowingly by.
Content advisory: Some action violence.
Steven Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register