About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Review: Storytelling


Two stories in one film: First up, college creative writing student Selma Blair abandons her cerebral palsy suffering boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick) for her pretentious African-American professor (Robert Wisdom), who likes it a bit rough and with extra racial epithets. In the second story, wannabe documentarian Paul Giamatti thinks he’s found an excellent subject in slacker Mark Webber, filming him and his barely functioning family (Demanding father John Goodman, clueless mother Julie Hagerty). Dad wants Webber to try and get into college, and Giamatti sees potential in this. Because he’s a tool. Webber has no scholastic ambition (nor much aptitude for it), and wants to be a late night TV host like his hero Conan O’Brien. Franka Potente plays Giamatti’s co-worker, and Mary Lynn Raskjub is Blair’s roommate in the first story.

 

Writer-director Todd Solondz shows himself to be a one-trick pony with this 2002 drama that once again tries to shock for the sake of it. I wasn’t a fan of his “Happiness” and here he just reminds you how much better everyone else is at making these contemporary American adult dramas about unsavoury subjects (“American Beauty”, “Magnolia”, “In the Bedroom”, etc.) or dark comedies, as some seem to view them (If so, this may be the darkest of dark comedies I’ve seen). That’s because those films and their makers were working with more substance and purpose. Solondz just wants to give us Selma Blair being rear-ended by her African-American teacher whilst shouting provocative racial/sexual phrases that I won’t relay here. Robert Wisdom is hilariously callous and egotistical as the teacher, but the rest of the segment sucks. One might commend Solondz for creating a character with cerebral palsy and allowing him to have a romance in the film. That is, until you realise it’s only there for shock value when heartless and selfish Selma Blair dumps the poor guy. Having characters even bring up the idea of shock value doesn’t make you smart, Mr. Solondz, it makes you a bit of a douche. You’re not as clever as you think you are, and this film ends up being much ado about nothing.

 

The gimmick of two major stories in one (One labelled Fiction, the other labelled Non-Fiction. I don’t know why, either) is just that, a gimmick. I couldn’t see a connection between the two, outside of maybe a scholastic one, and even that is a stretch. Then again this is a film asking us to believe that Selma Blair could play a college student. Sure, I was a few years older than the norm at Uni, but wasn’t Blair already in her 30s when she starred in “Cruel Intentions”? As for the second segment, Paul Giamatti is excellent and Julie Hagerty is hilariously air-headed (We’re all survivors of the holocaust, apparently), but neither half of this film seemed to have a point (Don’t even get me started on the kid brother having conversations with the maid that no one his age would ever have with anyone let alone the maid), nor did I discern an overall one, either.

 

Entertainment value is scarce, as there’s barely a relatable character around, and nothing about the two halves convinces as any kind of reality. It was cool to see loveable stoner Mike Schank (“American Movie”) as a cameraman, and Steve Railsback plays the creepiest school principal of all-time, but whatever this is, I didn’t get it (It’s not even anywhere near as controversial as “Happiness”), and outside of a couple of performances and seeing Selma Blair’s tits in the opening scene, I didn’t much like it. Worst sin of all are the brightly coloured credits that occasionally clash and are hard to read. Doesn’t anyone check these things before the film is in theatres?

 

Rating: D+

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Charlie Chaplin Films Pt. 2:


Modern Times: Charlie Chaplin plays ‘A Factory Worker’ (really The Tramp in his swansong), who ends up losing his mind from the overly repetitious nature of his assembly line job, working for a mechanised factory overseen by a decidedly Orwellian employer. After his nervous breakdown, he is sent to a mental hospital, he emerges some time later only to mistakenly be viewed as a commie agitator when he inadvertently walks into a demonstration. He is thusly imprisoned, and once emerging, he fears the outside world and tries to get back in! And that’s when he meets the homeless and depressed Gamin (Paulette Goddard), falls in love, and they try their best to make it through life’s ups and downs together. Easier said than done when we’re talking about The Great Depression.

 

When I heard the basic idea behind this 1936 silent film (largely silent, at any rate) from writer-director-composer-star Charlie Chaplin, I was worried that this would be his Luddite/philistine opus by a filmmaker stubbornly refusing to adapt to change and trying to find excuses for himself. Thankfully, Chaplin’s message here is more complex than simply being anti-mechanisation, and in fact, not only is his message beautiful, it’s also still relevant today. I honestly expected this one to be pretty dated, but it’s actually kinda timeless. It’s about how the mechanisation of society can turn almost turn overworked and underpaid employees into machines, losing whatever makes them uniquely and distinctly human. More than that, it’s Chaplin yet again dealing with socioeconomic issues to show the pressures of ‘modern’ living, as machines put human workers on the unemployment (and poverty) line during The Great Depression. He also makes a pointed comparison between the dehumanisation of factory work/technology, with the rigid, impersonal prison life. I still think that by making this point through a silent film in a sound era does make Chaplin seem a touch philistine-ish, but it’d be too simplistic to suggest that he’s entirely anti-modernity. He just sees some inherent flaws.

 

Along with “The Great Dictator”, I think this is Chaplin’s best film, and if you’re looking to start your journey into his work, this might be the best one to start with. It’s by far his most accessible film. It’s certainly immediately his best-looking film, with wonderfully imposing sets for the rather art deco factory scenes. The music by Chaplin himself is excellent, and probably his best work.

 

There’s lots of great moments here. There’s a brilliant bit where he falls down the conveyor belt into a maze of gears and wheels, showing off terrific set design and lots of imagination. An adorable Pekingese manages to steal one scene with a stomach-rumbling Chaplin, which is very cute and amusing. There’s a funny and almost surreal moment when Chaplin is milking a cow that just happened to stop by his back door. Chaplin’s impish physicality is charming, especially in one roller-skating scene inside a store. And whether it’s a silent film in a sound era or not, how many films from the 1930s feature a frequently incarcerated man as a romantic hero? Only Chaplin would do such a thing, I think. I’ll happily stand corrected, though. The ending is positively gorgeous, by the way.

 

In addition to being Chaplin’s best film, this feels like the film he had been working towards perfecting his whole career. So it’s a shame that leading lady Paulette Goddard ain’t no Edna Purviance. In fact, she and the romantic aspect (a rerun of previous efforts, really) are the weakest thing here. Whilst Chaplin tones down the previously rather annoying facial mugging here, the same cannot be said for Goddard. She’s awfully overripe, like she knows she’s in a silent film but has never actually seen one and mugs even more mercilessly than silent actors tended to. Absolutely nauseating, she has two modes; Smiley or demonic, angry face. No subtlety, not even for a silent film. Instead of playing a poor girl, she plays a demonically possessed, bipolar girl.

 

Overall, a beautifully made, funny, interesting, charming, and ultimately timeless film that everyone must see at least once in their life. Even if you’re not a Chaplin fan (I’m not, for instance), you can’t dislike this film.

 

Rating: B+

 

The Great Dictator: Set in the fictional country of Tomania, Charlie Chaplin plays two roles, a simple Jewish barber and Tomania’s Hitler-esque dictator named Hynkel. The first (essentially The Tramp, but unnamed) ends up fighting for his country in WW1, before a plane crash with a wounded comrade (Reginald Gardiner) lands him in the hospital for a very long time. He returns home to find that the country has now changed under Hynkel, and his fellow Jews are being persecuted. A strong-willed young Jewish woman (Paulette Goddard) misinterprets the amnesiac barber’s ignorance for political defiance when he takes umbrage at the ‘storm troopers’ painting ‘JEW’ on his shop front window. The only thing stopping the barber from being arrested is that one of the high-ranking Nazis is his former pilot comrade helps him out. Meanwhile, Hynkel (who looks remarkably like the dictator, a detail that will later come into play) is plotting an attack on Osterlich, and the barber’s war comrade is falling out of favour with the madman. An Oscar-nominated Jack Oakie plays the dictatorial leader of neighbouring Bacteria, who is just as comically self-absorbed as Hynkel. Henry Daniell plays Garbitsch, the disdainful Minister for Propaganda.

 

One of the most controversial films ever made, this 1940 film from writer/director Charlie Chaplin isn’t a terribly easy film to stomach. In hindsight, Chaplin felt had he known the true and full extent of the horrors of Nazi Germany, he wouldn’t have made the film the way he did. The scenes concerning the persecuted Jews are in some ways regrettable (though Roberto Benigni managed to find a way to perfect such things in his wonderful “Life is Beautiful” many years later), but the rest of the subject matter plays much more palatably than it might’ve between say, 1941-1950. Making fun of Nazis is stock-standard these days, so none of that bothered me. In fact, the more you make fun of something sinister, the less power that sinister force has, if you ask me. Even the Jewish ghetto stuff didn’t bother me, seeing it in 2014, I was simply able to see why it might’ve been extremely controversial at the time (in the minds of both Jews and those with anti-Semitic attitudes), and isn’t the strongest part of the film.

 

Chaplin, whatever naiveté he may have shown in some parts of this film, deserves praise nonetheless for being one of the first to ridicule Hitler and his brethren. The laughs here come in early, with a very funny gag involving Chaplin’s soldier being tasked with checking on a malfunctioning bomb. The weapons these soldiers have are very amusing, and very weird. In 2014, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making jokes about this kind of stuff. I mean, once you’ve seen “The Producers” and “Hogan’s Heroes”, the flood gates are pretty much open (If this isn’t one of Mel Brooks’ favourite films, I’d be shocked). The only time I felt the film was truly a bit on the nose, was the character of Herring (a substitute for Goehring, no doubt) claiming with glee that they had just invented a gas to kill everyone. Yikes. But for the most part, this definitely plays better today than it would have in the 40s, and Chaplin certainly deserves credit for speaking out against Hitler and the Reich.

 

The interior set design in particular deserves to be singled out, it’s incredible, almost hyperreal. Chaplin finally talks in this one, and hearing his voice, one can actually understand why he resisted sound for so long. He doesn’t have the most memorable or unique voice, whereas as The Tramp, his silence was pretty much what set him apart. Chaplin’s dual performances here two of the best performances he ever gave. Chaplin’s second role of the Hitler-esque dictator (playing off the obvious physical similarity between Hitler and Chaplin’s Tramp) provides some of the film’s best and funniest moments as he hilariously lampoons Hitler’s psychotic speechifyin’ and mannerisms. You can tell he’s just throwing in random words in like sauerkraut. There’s also funny word play with character names like Henry Daniell’s propaganda minister being named Garbitsch, or the translator being named Schtick. Is there a doctor named Schadenfreude there too, I wondered?

 

One of the film’s comedic highlights is a bizarre scene in a plane that has some truly unusual gravitational forces at work. It’s one of the cleverest things Chaplin ever came up with, I think. Also funny is the scene where Hynkel and Jack Oakie’s Mussolini stand-in attempting to gain the advantage in a photo op. Even better is when they try to do the same when in barber’s chairs. Priceless, as in this film Chaplin reduces fascism to gibberish and fascists into insecure, neurotic, blustering fools. The famous globe dancing scene could’ve come off horribly wrong had the balloon not burst at the end. As such, it’s one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history. Talk about tightrope walking.

 

I could suggest that the film needs a lot more from Daniell’s Garbitsch, but that might just be the Henry Daniell fan in me. Seeing him in something like this is in and of itself very funny, even when he’s the straight man. Paulette Goddard, meanwhile, is her usual terrible self here. She’s just too ham-fisted. I was also surprised that the film really only made a thing of the resemblance between the Jewish barber and the dictator in the last quarter of the film. Going in, that’s what I thought the main plot was about, and I do think more emphasis on that earlier on would’ve been beneficial. But really, I’m nitpicking.

 

The film’s definitely a huge departure from previous Chaplin films, not just because it’s a ‘talkie’, but the narrative is really strong, too. In a way, it’s typical Chaplin, sticking up for the underdogs and the underprivileged, so it’s not like he’s making fun of the Jews or their plight. And even scenes like the goose-stepping prisoners made me laugh, those with closer ties to the geopolitics of the time might be less amused. Chaplin’s final speech (a tad treacly, to be honest) shows that at the very least, he had good intentions here. His only crime is being ill-informed on matters that he probably could never have properly imagined at the time (The film began production in 1939). All I can say is that I personally think it’s a fascinating and highly entertaining film, even with some of its more dubious elements.

 

Whatever you make of the film’s political/socioeconomic content, it’s undoubtedly fascinating and pretty close to his best film, behind only “Modern Times”. I’m always wary of films that try to comment on situations that are still happening at the time the film was released, but this certainly holds up less offensively and less foolishly than some poorly-judged war films I could name (“The Green Berets”, for instance). At least to an outsider like me, it does. It strongly divided audiences at the time and for a good many years after. It was, however, his biggest box-office hit, so at least a lot of people saw it and it earned five Oscar noms, including Best Picture and Best Actor. I think time has ultimately been kind to the film. It’s an imperfect but unforgettable film, and I’m glad the film exists. It’s pretty brave, and at least Chaplin was trying to and willing to say something about Hitler and fascism/Nazism.

 

Rating: B+

 

The Gold Rush: Charlie Chaplin is yet again The Tramp, now in The Yukon during the Gold Rush of the late 1890s. He walks into a cabin owned by the rather unscrupulous and gruff Black Larsen, who is none too pleased to have an interloper, and is even angrier when another prospector named Big Jim (Mack Swain) enters the cabin. Eventually, Big Jim manages to subdue the surly mountain man, and the trio attempt to coexist, as there is a blizzard outside blocking their exit. Georgia Hale plays a young woman whom The Tramp later encounters and falls for.

 

One of Charlie Chaplin’s best silent films, this 1925 film was re-edited by Chaplin in the 40s, with Chaplin adding his own narration to the film. Some have criticised this aspect, but when you watch the film, it really does play exactly the same role that title cards played in Chaplin’s other silents, so who the hell cares? The people who complain about it are insane or pigheaded to a ridiculous degree in this instance. It ain’t George Lucas levels of bastardisation, let alone on the level of ‘colourised’ B&W films. Calm down, everyone! I think the film does come up a tad short of his two best films (“Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator”), but only just. It ends a little abruptly and the romance for me is kept to the sidelines for too long (An issue that was even more problematic in “City Lights”). I also found that these mountain men characters were a bit interchangeable. But still, this is a very fine film, both funny and sad, as was often the case with Chaplin.

 

Although it might seem a bit odd to find The Tramp out in gold mining/mountain territory, it’s an interesting story (a stronger one than “City Lights”, though falling into some of the same traps), and the setting allows Chaplin to play on his usual themes of socioeconomic hardship and starvation. He has two classic comedy set-pieces here; The ‘dance of the rolls’ is one of the best things you’ll ever see in your life, even if you’ve already seen Johnny Depp do an homage in “Benny & Joon”. The funniest moment by far, though is when the cabin The Tramp and his mountain man companion are staying in gets blown right to the edge of a cliff during a blizzard and they sleep right through it. Classic stuff. I was less amused by the celebrated scene where the starving men eat a boot, which I found lame and stupid. It is, however, amusing when The Tramp offers to cook the other one. Even funnier is a subsequent moment when the mountain man, in deep starvation, hallucinates that The Tramp is a chicken. Funny, cute, and…just strange.

 

This stuff really ought not to be funny, but Chaplin gets away with a lot of it. But it’s not just laughs to be had here, if you don’t tear up when ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is sung in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, it might cause tears to well up here. The camera catching all those starved, weathered faces is unforgettable.

 

A really fine film, and better than say “City Lights”, I nonetheless think this one’s just a tad below Chaplin’s two absolute best films. Others consider it his finest film.

 

Rating: B

 

Limelight: Charlie Chaplin is Calvero, a former music hall comedian of some repute, now a washed-up drunk. One night he finds a young woman (Claire Bloom) in the same apartment building has collapsed, after a failed suicide attempt. He takes her up to his apartment and helps her recover. Soon after the landlady has rented out the young woman’s room, leaving her nowhere to go. Calvero lets the woman, Thereza, stay for a while, hoping to also keep her spirits up and show her that life is worth living. In the process, he finds himself the courage to overcome his fear of failure and attempts to make a career comeback, though he knows that there is much more left of Thereza’s career than his own (Hence the quote at the beginning of the film; ‘The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth enters’). And despite a big age difference, Thereza (a ballerina) develops romantic feelings for the older, dishevelled man. He in turn tries to encourage her to reacquaint herself with the poor composer (Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s son) she helped out a while back whilst working as a clerk in a music store, and quietly pined for. Nigel Bruce plays a producer, Norman Lloyd is a stage manager, and Buster Keaton turns up as another vaudeville comedian. Look for a young Geraldine Chaplin as a street urchin early on in the film (The distinct-looking actress is hard not to notice).

 

Released in 1952, this wasn’t the last Charlie Chaplin film, but it very much plays like the beloved star-director-screenwriter-composer bowing out, hopefully on a high note, certainly an autobiographical one. It’s a flawed film, undoubtedly, but also in my view an extremely underrated one. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s criminally overlong and overly indulgent, it might’ve proved his masterwork. Trim it down to about, say, 100 minutes or so, and I’d truly treasure this film. In its current form, it’s a hair below his two best films “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator”, but really only a single hair.

 

There’s certainly a lot to appreciate here, especially the performance by Claire Bloom, who actually outshines Chaplin. One of the most beautiful women to have ever lived (nice pins, too!), Bloom is an instant worry here as a most despondent young former dancer (albeit absolutely incandescent). There is almost nothing sadder than a suicidal, beautiful woman, I think. I’ve seen Bloom give the occasional poor performance (“The Outrage”, in which only Howard da Silva and William Shatner emerged unscathed), but very, very rarely. She was an extremely underrated actress, who should’ve been nominated for an Oscar here, I think it’s the best performance of her entire career. She and Mr. Chaplin (who I only recognised after about 30 seconds, dude got old!) make for an excellent team here. Chaplin (who sounds remarkably like James Mason if you ask me) is a tad hammy when portraying the drunk side of his character (he borders on Sir Les Patterson, actually), but is otherwise rather good here. In fact, he probably deserved an Oscar nomination here, too (He didn’t get one, but he did actually win an Oscar for his own music score for this film, the film’s only nomination let alone win…in 1972! Apparently it wasn’t shown in LA until then). I’m less surprised to find that Chaplin is a solid dramatic actor than I am him being a good actor in ‘talkies’, even after having already seen him in “The Great Dictator”. Almost all of his films had their dramatic underpinning, after all. There really is something truly touching about the central relationship here. When one needs cheering up or emotional support, the other gives it. It’s also interesting to see the lovely Ms. Bloom potentially having relations with two generations of Chaplins here, as Charles’ son Sydney plays a potential romantic suitor.

 

Look out for character actor Nigel Bruce in a supporting turn. God bless him, he has no idea about subtlety, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The rather underappreciated, long-serving Norman Lloyd is always an asset to any film and does solid work here. I’ve always been more of a Buster Keaton fan than a Chaplin fan, so it’s a bit of a shame that although wonderful, Keaton ends up rather wasted here. I would’ve preferred more scenes with him, and less of nearly everything else to be honest. I certainly think that at 2 ¼ hours, it’s just too much, and no matter how good a lot of it is, it can’t help but drag at times. I would’ve cut out most of the performance scenes to be frank, or at least cut them down considerably. Pretty or not, the ballet is interminable to endure. The big comic set-piece between Keaton and Chaplin isn’t the great comedy moment you want it to be, but it’s a great cinematic moment, a milestone. It’s Keaton and Chaplin together for the first and last time. So I certainly wouldn’t cut that scene out or trim it down. But Chaplin’s ‘flea’ skit? It’s stupid and goes on forever. I know he’s meant to play a washed-up vaudeville comedian, but that thing was awful.

 

The final scene is overly indulgent and pretentious…and I don’t give a flying monkey butt. It’s still unforgettable, and kinda perfect to end the film on. It just feels right. Sad, melancholic, and deserving of a wider audience than has thus far likely seen it. This is a good film that could’ve been a masterpiece were it not so long and slow. It’s too much movie. Such a shame, but you still must see this one, even if it’s not Chaplin’s best film. Not a film for cynics or the unsentimental, but that’s their problem. Excellent B&W cinematography by Karl Struss (“Sunrise”, “The Great Dictator”) deserves much praise. Interesting that Robert Aldrich (director of “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and “The Dirty Dozen”) was an Assistant Director here, his last such assignment before advancing fully into the director’s chair the following year.

 

Rating: B+

Monday, November 24, 2014

Charlie Chaplin Films Pt. 1:


A Dog’s Life: Writer-director-star Charlie Chaplin of course plays the unemployed Tramp, who rescues a dog named Scraps from being mauled by several other, bigger dogs. The two make fast friends, whilst the Tramp also falls for a rather brow-beaten bar singer (Edna Purviance). There’s also the matter of some stolen loot added to the mix.

 

Charlie Chaplin’s first two-reeler, and apparently the first film to make $1 million, this film from 1918 is just OK. I’m more of a Buster Keaton fan, I feel he was the more creative and innovative of the two. The dog Scraps (really Mutt) steals the show easily, but you can definitely see Chaplin’s trademark pathos and The Tramp character really is an interesting one. Chaplin himself grew up poor, of course, and he really did seem to want to inject themes of poverty and unemployment into his films.

 

There’s a cute bit at the employment office with The Tramp struggling to get to the service window, but actually with a rather sad ending to the scene, a sting in the tail if you will. One funny bit has Chaplin sneaking the dog into a club, and the dog’s tail sticking out of Chaplin’s clothes, banging on a drum. I also think we see what was likely cinema’s first-ever dog shit joke at one point. Others can correct me on that, but I think it might be accurate to say. So the comedy has its moments, but for me, it’s the sadness and pathos, more than anything that struck me here, and it won’t be the last time you read that from me. I just think that other films (“The Kid”, “The Gold Rush”, “Modern Times”) did it much better than this, it’s an OK dry run for his feature-length outings. An easy way to kill 40 minutes or so, if you ever get the chance.

 

Rating: C+

 

A Day’s Pleasure: In this 1919 short film, Chaplin (not playing The Tramp this time), his wife (Edna Purviance) and their kids (including Jackie Coogan, soon to feature prominently in Chaplin’s feature-length “The Kid”), try to enjoy an outing on a ferry. It doesn’t go smoothly to say the least.

 

There’s a very funny sea-sickness joke involving The Tramp and some African-American big band musicians, though there’s a touch of racism (or at least very un-PC humour) to it as well. The whole thing has a Mr. Bean/TV sitcom vibe to it, or “National Lampoon’s Vacation” meets Murphy’s Law, as everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. The idea behind the film is very simple but also true and relatable: Having a nice day is awfully bloody difficult, especially if you have no idea how to unfold a deck chair. That gag in particular could’ve served as the inspiration for some of the stuff on “Mr. Bean” in particular.

 

Chaplin’s own music score deserves a mention here, it’s particularly jaunty I must say. Also, if Chaplin invented the movie dog shit gag in “A Dog’s Life”, he may well have invented shaky-cam here, for the sea-sickness gags. I’m almost serious, too. It doesn’t have the cleverness of some of the gags in “A Dog’s Life”, nor does it feature much of Chaplin’s trademark social commentary. It’s a bit light on substance, I guess. However, it might be a bit funnier and more consistent than “A Dog’s Life”. I guess that makes them about even overall, though. It’s not bad, just obviously insubstantial due to its short film constraints (and it was also made in a week, apparently), and more of a straight-up comedy short.

 

Rating: C+

 

The Kid: Charlie Chaplin is once again the poor Tramp, who happens upon a young baby, abandoned by its destitute single mother (Edna Purviance). The Tramp raises him as his own, and eventually he is played as a child by Jackie Coogan. The two get into a window repairing racket, where the kid will smash the windows, and The Tramp will come along to offer to fix it. Unfortunately, the boy takes ill, and when it is revealed that The Tramp is not his biological father, child welfare becomes involved.

 

The first feature-length film from writer-director-star Charlie Chaplin (who had a helluva tough upbringing himself), and his most substantial film up to its date, this 1921 blend of comedy and heart is more cute and heart-warming than funny (Perhaps I’ve seen the basic idea done to death in the years since this film and it has lost some of its edge in the sands of time). Young Coogan actually takes the film out from underneath Chaplin, and will steal your heart, too. The film doesn’t really perk up until these two get together, and Coogan is undoubtedly an adorable scene-stealer (It’s amazing to think he grew up to be Uncle Fester. Hollywood is fucked up, y’all!). Sure, when you think about it, The Tramp is entirely unsuitable to be looking after a kid, but you won’t really notice that at first. Besides, this is a film that has a kid committing vandalism, really, so it’s best not to think too much. It’s quite a cheeky film for 1921, actually, and a good one overall.

 

However, a stupid and ill-advised dream sequence towards the end threatens to ruin the fun. I’m not sure what was going on there. Best leave the invention and ingenuity to Buster Keaton, Mr. Chaplin. Stick to the comedy and pathos. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find this among peoples’ favourite Chaplin films, nor would it surprise me to find that it brings many a tear to people’s eyes. 

 

Rating: B-

 

The Circus: The Tramp is taking in the sights of a local circus when the cops accuse him of being a thief, and chase him all around. This results in a lot of pratfalling and interrupting circus acts, and inadvertently, turning The Tramp into the star of the show. The soulless, profit-driven owner (Al Ernest Garcia) decides to try The Tramp out as a clown. Unfortunately, despite being an unintentional hoot, when given directions, he proves a flop. But his unintended pratfalling proves a hit with audiences, and so he is kept on the payroll. The owner does not, however, tell The Tramp that he’s the star of the show (lest he have to pay him more!), and The Tramp is none the wiser. Meanwhile, the circus owner also physically abuses his stepdaughter (Merna Kennedy), one of the other circus performers, for screwing up her routine. The bastard also starves her, I might add. The Tramp, of course, is kind to her and falls in love with her, but she seems more interested in the more conventionally handsome tightrope walker (Harry Crocker). When the tightrope walker fails to turn up for a show, guess who is assigned the task of walking the tightrope instead?

 

This 1928 silent film earned writer-director-composer-star Charlie Chaplin a special Oscar, and although not up to the standard of some of this later works, it’s still his second best film up to this point (“The Gold Rush” is undeniably better). Chaplin actually sings at the beginning of this film (aside from the circus-style music, it’s the only sound you’ll hear in the film), and he might sound a bit different to how you expect (It was recorded in 1969 when 80 year-old Chaplin re-edited the film). Apparently the film was made in a time of turmoil for the man, but it never makes its way onto the screen. It’s jolly good fun.

 

Early on we get a cute scene with Chaplin being fed by a small child, which is amusing. The film might also be the genesis of the hall of mirrors gag that you see in so many films since. He also provides some rather clever gags with his character (The Tramp) getting involved with some of the circus acts, mid-routine, whilst the cops are chasing after him. My favourite bit was probably when The Tramp gets beset by monkeys whilst up on the highwire. It’s obvious how that was done, but it’s still very clever for 1928-29. There’s also an absolutely hair-raising bit with The Tramp stuck in the lion’s cage. Did he really do that or was it some kind of film trickery?

 

It’s pretty amusing stuff, but compared to later Chaplin films, this one at times feels like episodes/vignettes for a Tramp Joins the Circus-type TV sitcom, rather than a stand-alone feature film. Obviously, this is pre-TV of course, but it does have an episodic feel early on. Like most Chaplin films, there’s a tinge of sadness and social commentary here, with the poor Tramp being exploited and underpaid. The female lead character (played by Merna Kennedy) gets a rough going, treated in a quite shockingly brutish way by the circus owner. I’m surprised they’d show scenes of her being physically abused, but I think this was pre-Hays era, and maybe such things were viewed differently back then, I dunno.

 

I also found the film’s treatment of clowns fascinating. The clowns in the film get booed, with cries of ‘Where’s the funny man?’, referring to Chaplin’s bumbling circus employee, who is only funny when he’s not trying to be funny. The funny thing about this film is, episodic or not, it’s still one of the most entertaining Chaplin films to that date. It also becomes far less vignette-based, and more cinematic in the second half, which is much better. Interesting ending too, bucking romantic tradition somewhat, but it still works. A solid and entertaining 20s-era Chaplin effort well worth seeking out.

 

Rating: B-

 

City Lights: The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) saves a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) from ending it all, and in good faith he offers The Tramp a place to sleep for the night. However, it becomes pretty clear soon after that the millionaire only likes The Tramp when they are getting pissed together, and throws him out when he sobers up. Meanwhile, The Tramp has fallen for a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), and attempts all kinds of jobs (boxing, even) to earn money to pay for an operation to restore her sight. He finally gets enough money to pay for the operation, but one too many scrapes with the law sees him imprisoned before the operation is finished. Will he ever see his love again? And what will she think when she finally sees him?

 

This 1931 romantic comedy/drama from writer-director-composer-star Charlie Chaplin is considered by many to be his best film, or at least Top 3 (Orson Welles apparently called it his favourite film of all-time). Of all of his most famous films (the others being “The Gold Rush”, “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator”), for me it’s the weakest. It’s still an entertaining motion picture, don’t get me wrong. I just prefer the others (and the highly underrated “Limelight”, for that matter).

 

That this is a silent film in an era where ‘talkies’ were quite widespread (“The Jazz Singer” came out in 1927, for instance) shows just how stubborn and resistant to change Chaplin was (a bit of a sticking point with me), but could The Tramp really work in a fully sound motion picture? It’s worth pondering, maybe Chaplin kinda had a point in sticking to his guns for so long.

 

This is one of Chaplin’s funniest film up to that date, but what pulls the film back somewhat for me is how unfocussed the film is in terms of narrative. The scenes with the suicidal drunk early on mean that the film takes too long to really come into focus on its main plot. The film’s sweet romance, for me was its most potentially strong asset, but Chaplin faffs about and never quite gets around to it the way I wanted him to. I think the film would’ve been even better had it begun with the ‘meet cute’ between the romantic leads (Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill), then show us that she needs rent money, and away we go. Instead, it’s like 30 minutes before we find out about her financial situation.

 

It’s still a funny film, however. The opening scene which features characters talking like adults in a Charlie Brown special is a lot funnier than I expected, having read about it. The opening is very cheeky and features some wonderful physical comedy. There’s an even funnier bit where he swallows a party whistle, I nearly hurt myself with laughter at that, old as the gag is. He attracts the attention of taxis, dogs, etc. Chaplin nervously, almost effeminately awaiting his first boxing match is just adorable. By the way, I’m pretty sure Scorsese based the boxing scenes in “Raging Bull” on this. Still awake? Just checking. The film’s finest moment, however, is the ending. It’s beautiful, and might even bring you to tears. I’m a bit surprised the end scene isn’t a bit longer, and when you see the film, you’ll know what I mean. However, I kinda like how it stops just short of being neat and tidy. It gives you the basic idea, but also a little something to ponder. There’s nothing wrong with that.

 

It’s not his strongest work, and it’s overrated, but there’s still lots to like and recommend here.

 

Rating: B-