Friday Movies: Silent, Scary and Speechless

Buster Keaton

hide captionBuster Keaton (left) co-wrote, directed and starred in the 1925 silent comedy Go West.

Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corporation
Robin Williams in The Night Listener

hide captionRobin Williams in Miramax Films' The Night Listener.

Miramax Films

Sadly, no Will Ferrell from the estimable Bob Mondello, who is in Fair Winds, Argentina. (Did I mention the Ron Burgundy bobble-head doll on my desk?) However, he does offers us his take on a silent movie star (Buster Keaton); a movie star who has almost never been kept silent (Robin Williams); and movies five years after a tragedy that made us all speechless (Sept. 11).

Buenos Aires is playing host to a Buster Keaton Festival at present — what's being billed as a "retrospectiva completa" of the Great Stone Face's silent comedies. My Spanish is just about up to translating the infrequent title cards, so I'm doing OK so far. I caught Tres Eras (Three Ages) on Tuesday, and laughed harder at the short subject Una Semana (One Week) in which Buster and his bride build a house from a mail-order kit. This weekend, I'll likely catch Las Siete Oportunidades (Seven Chances) and maybe Hacia El Oueste (Go West).

That'll be lighter fare than what I caught of this week's releases before I left the U.S. on vacation.

In The Night Listener, Robin Williams plays depressed radio personality Gabriel Noone, who gets wrapped up in an autobiography that's about to be published by Pete Logand, a 14-year-old, HIV-positive boy who writes vividly about his abusive childhood. He talks to the boy on the phone, and also to his very protective, adoptive mother (Toni Collette), but when he goes to visit them, and mom won't let him see the kid, Gabriel starts to suspect he's being scammed. Based on a novel by Armistead Maupin, the plot has both parallels to and departures from the case of publishing phenomenon, J.T. Leroy, who was befriended by celebrities, wrote numerous autobiographical articles and was spotted at various functions, only to be revealed as a complete fabrication. The performances are fine, but the story moves so slowly it seems to flatten out rather than gain force as it approaches its final reel.

And then, of course, the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, and if Oliver Stone's World Trade Center looms largest among the observances of that tragic day, it's hardly the only one. I caught a made-for-video release before I left that might appeal to folks who grow queasy at the thought of revisiting the site with Stone. As the title of Brian Sloan's intimately oblique drama, WTC View suggests, he's operating at a slightly greater distance from the events than Stone — but only by a few blocks. Sloan's movie imagines that a young gay man has placed an ad on Sept. 10, 2001, using the title phrase to describe a room to let in his apartment. Tragedies notwithstanding, life goes on, and a variety of would be renters shows up. While the camera never looks out the apartment's window, they do, and their faces register a range of feeling that's more nuanced than the masks of grief and shock that fill our memories. The film's view is as deliberately constricted as the apartment's — Sloan is intent on remembering the reactions of a very specific cross-section of Manhattanites — but his script captures the confusion of those first few days, and is clearly heartfelt.

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