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“Steamboat Bill Jr.” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” on DVD

“Steamboat Bill Jr.” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” on DVD (photo)

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Chaplin may have enjoyed being regarded as the premier film artiste and the silent era’s great artist for much of the 20th century, but everyone knows by now that he was a winkingly clever, crass, desperate populist compared to Buster Keaton. Though only moderately successful in his heyday, and ruined with the coming of sound, Keaton has emerged unchallenged as the greatest American filmmaker that the silent era ever produced.

These are old films, but they’re Vermeers compared to comedies made half a century or more since, even “Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928), roundly dubbed an okay Keaton, not a peak work, but now restored and released in a lavish set from Kino that begs for reconsideration.

Today, this quaint, precise, epic entertainment, crafted in the strange transitional phase between the silent era and the struggling years of the first talkies, seems like a necessity, a gust of relaxed maturity and reason in a pandering Hollywood sphere that would grow ever more frantic and obvious.

07052010_SteamboatBillJrKeaton2.jpgThe film may not be as relentlessly inventive as “The General” or “Sherlock Jr.” or even “College” — rather, it takes its sweet-tea time introducing stock characters and exploring the environment (the banks of the old Mississippi). It’s if by 1928, Keaton was assuming that audiences could outgrow instant gratification, or that they were so well-schooled in the ways of silent comedy that a more grown-up, less manipulative mode was possible.

You feel as though you’re in a master’s hands — the temperance and gracefulness of his visual storytelling isn’t merely classical, it’s novelistic, favoring relaxed company spent with the characters over the dominoes of plot. The story is naturally a heap of inoffensive clichés (Keaton is a geeky, eager college kid gone to visit the father he never met, who captains an ailing riverboat, and to fall in love with the daughter of the business’s evil archrival), and their familiarity actually supports Keaton’s tone — don’t worry about drama, the film hums. Be happy.

But be careful, too, and look how Keaton (assisted in some fashion by credited director Charles Reisner) frames his movie and respects the viewer. For one thing, he understood off-screen space far better than Chaplin or Lloyd or any filmmaker of the era.

07052010_SteamboatBillJrKeaton3.jpgThen there’s the famous climactic hurricane sequence, a sequence of set-pieces (including Keaton’s definitive standing-under-a-falling-building-just-where-the-window-is gag) so furiously and lavishly conceived (entire buildings fly out of the frame and fall out of the sky) that humor is a secondary concern — its spectacle is wild yet carefully orchestrated mayhem, a three-ring circus of Swiss-timed catastrophe.

“Steamboat Bill Jr.” is, though, mostly a triumph of personableness, of character. Keaton is his usual blank-slate self, inventing the deadpan, but also innovating realistic comic style — his reluctance to express his reactions is far more grounded in reality than Chaplin’s smirking, or most other modes of movie acting prior to Brando. But he gets 3D support from Ernest Torrence as the looming, river-master father, twice Keaton’s size and a rich source of hilariously dry rebound shots and moments of unpredictable humanity.

The two-disc set includes, of all things, an alternative version constructed at the time of different takes, a supposedly common practice I hadn’t heard of before, and which no doubt has some profit-margin reason behind it. Both work, and both are funny.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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