City Lights (1931)

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights

I don’t know what I wanted from City Lights. What I do know is that I was awed by what was considered as Chaplin’s relatively “lesser” earlier works (The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus) and that I most definitely am a sucker for romantic comedies. So upon revisiting the film in the context of it being one of Chaplin’s masterpieces and it being hailed by some as the greatest romantic comedy of all time, I was expecting something significantly affecting. Unfortunately, although there are still a lot of legitimate flashes of brilliance throughout the film, I can’t help but feel shortchanged after watching.

For a film that is consistently touted – along with Modern Times – as Chaplin’s best work and among the best films ever made, City Lights sure opens pretty weak. Instead of the kind of witty physical comedy that the world has come to expect from the filmmaker, the film dishes out a bunch of perfunctory slapstick gags as we’re introduced to the tramp once again. Yet even then, it’s easy to see that the the genius is still definitely there. In the scene, for example, where the tramp meets the girl for the first time; in only two minutes, with barely the use of any words, Chaplin is able to convey so much: That the tramp is initially cold towards the girl, that the girl is blind, that the tramp discovers she is blind and warms up to her instantly, and finally that she has mistaken him for a wealthy gentleman. That is the kind of concise intertwining of comedy, plot movement, character development, and sentimentality that I’ve come to expect from Chaplin at his best. Unfortunately though, it’s not something that carries on throughout the film.

The film progresses at an odd pace, with some supporting bits (with the tramp & the drunken gentleman) feeling like they run on for too long and the main narrative only popping up in parts. What aggravates this the most though is that a lot of the jokes simply fall flat. The huge rock being dropped on the tramp’s foot, the bottle of alcohol spilling on the tramp’s crotch, the lady sitting on a lit cigar, and the tramp swapping out the foreman’s cheese for a bar of soap are all just the worst offenders of a common theme that runs throughout the film: That the comedy, quite bluntly put, is cheap (especially for Chaplin’s standards). The really good gags are few and far between, with the best laughs in the film coming towards the end in a sequence where the tramp tries to earn some money for the blind girl by fighting in an amateur boxing match.

Where the film triumphantly succeeds is in the romance. It may not be consistently heartwarming, and does take a while to get going (primarily because of the odd pacing in the middle), but it alone makes the film somehow earn its reputation. The scene where the tramp brings the girl to her picturesque little home is so subtly beautiful and charming; and by the time he makes it his mission to earn money for the girl’s rent and to cure her blindness, one can’t help but be moved by the selflessness of the poor fellow. In typical Chaplin fashion, through a weird turn of events, he does eventually get the girl the money. Unfortunately, he also lands himself in jail while doing so. And what this sets up is nothing but one of the finest and most emotionally striking endings in all of cinema.

Severely lacking in laughs, but overflowing with heart, City Lights just begs me to reiterate what I mentioned in my review of The Circus – that maybe Chaplin was even more versed in the subtleties of human emotion more than the comedy that he is known for. Upon watching it for a second time, I think I have to put myself in the minority that would not consider film as one of his better releases; but hey, at least it leaves us with that magnificent ending.

Rating: B (good)

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Ninotchka (1939)

Greta Garbo as Ninotchka

“From what I’ve read, I thought champagne was a strong drink, but it’s delicate,” says Ninotchka as she takes her first sip of champagne. That line alone epitomizes the romance in Ninotchka, which revolves around the title character as played by Greta Garbo and Count Léon d’Algout as played by Melvyn Douglas.

They meet in the film as opposites. He is carefree and decadent. She is stiff and firm.  Through the course of the film however, Leon draws Ninotchka into his world, revealing a sweet and tender side to the Russian that he (or maybe even she herself) didn’t know existed.

Unfortunately – and I will put this as bluntly as Ninotchka would – the leads are just not that good, which sounds like blasphemy considering that Greta Garbo was considered as one of the greatest film stars for three decades. But if greatness is to be found in her acting, I didn’t find it here. Her stone-faced Bolshevik played out like a caricature and her turn of heart for the Count lacked believability. By the same token, Melvyn Douglas neither has the suave and sophistication of a Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise nor the tender charm of a James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner. Most importantly, Garbo and Douglas just don’t have the chemistry that is required to make the audience swoon with the belief that they were made for each other.

A bigger problem with Ninotchka however, is that its satirical angle seems to miss the point completely. In To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch executes a masterful satire of the Nazi regime. He ridicules the most blatant bullies of World War II and reveals a truth through comedy that is both poignant and profound. In Ninotchka however, a film that Lubitsch filmed three years earlier, Lubitsch strikes not nearly as flush or witty. This time, instead of Germany, the target of his political commentary resides in communist Russia. However, it’s unclear who is being lampooned; and more importantly, why.

The story of Ninotchka concerns itself heavily with a comparison of opposites just in the same way that the lead characters are introduced: The decadence of France vs. the rigidness of Russia, the plain uniform clothing of the Bolsheviks vs. the extravagant haute couture of the Parisians, the lavish and carefree high society lifestyle vs. the numbing tedium of communist society. Through this, the message is that communist Russia is evil, which is, I suppose a valid and relevant enough message during that time. The only problem is that the film does it at the expense of the people being oppressed themselves.

The butt of the jokes in To Be or Not to Be are the oppressors: Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Third Reich. Here, we see no shots being fired similarly at the Russian government. Instead, what we have to laugh at are Bolshevik envoys sent to Paris who are enamored by French culture. We laugh at Ninotchka’s Russian neighbor who walks as if the life has been sucked out of him. So, while Lubitsch’s heart appears to be in the right place, it seems that his aim is a bit off.

In spite of this, however, the great thing about Lubitsch films is that no matter what criticism may be laid on them, they never really are bad. Rarely are they even mediocre. In Ninotchka, what is left to admire is basically superficial Lubitsch: The classy production design, the grand and majestic air, the breezy pace and delicate touch. There not a lot of meat to sink one’s teeth into, but sometimes, what is experienced at face value may be enough.

Rating: B (good)

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall from Trouble in Paradise

It’s been said that Miriam Hopkins was an actress who often tried to upstage her fellow actors. She supposedly had a tendency to overact, and the purpose was to outshine everyone else. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that story, but if that was the goal in Trouble in Paradise, then consider it a success. The only thing I wanted more of after watching it was Miriam Hopkins.

In the film, she plays the role of Lily, a svelte thief masquerading in Venice as a Countess. The target of her next score being a certain Baron Lavalle who – unbeknownst to her – is also a fellow crook named Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), and she is his next score. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, they expose their true identities to each other over dinner. As if a potent aphrodisiac, the revelation makes them fall lustily for one another. They team-up and then swing from Venice to Paris where a third party enters the story in the form of Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). Initially eyed by the thieving couple only for her bejeweled purse, an amusing turn of events eventually puts Gaston in Colet‘s household as her secretary with Lily as his assistant. From here, it doesn’t take very long before Madame Colet is captivated by Gaston and shows jealousy towards Lily.

The dialogue is witty, clever and snappy, and the plot is evidently something that will be borrowed from by romcoms and con films for many decades. But what characterizes Trouble in Paradise the most is that it’s a film filled with silky sophistication. From the romantic setting to the high society crowd that Colet surrounds herself with, everything in the film floats with softness and grace. Marshall’s performance in particular is the epitome of the cool and composed smooth-talking gentleman, while Francis sashays elegantly across the screen with every move of her body. Even the camera follows in theme as it glides from side to side and up and down as Lubitsch himself chooses to move the frame and transition with fade ins and outs instead of employing quick cuts.

As beautiful and light the film is to behold though, everything seems like it’s a little bit insincere. There’s a hint of something hidden beyond face value. There is playful innuendo, but no action. There is disappointment, but no anger. There is worry, but no distress. It’s a film about people being fooled and robbed, but all the emotions seem stifled, which makes the film occasionally uninteresting. It keeps on gathering momentum, but never really takes off.

The exception to this of course, is Lily. In a picture where everything is made out to look sleek and where characters maintain the utmost poise, Miriam Hopkins gives a performance that doesn’t care if things have to be loud and dirty. Hers is a role that wears her heart on her sleeve and that is what makes Hopkins shine. That is why people want to see more of her. When she is happy, she is ecstatic. When she is mad, she is livid. In a picture full of tempered emotions, she is the one that gives the film life, fun, passion and spirit.

Rating: B (good)

Heat (1995)

Val Kilmer in a shootout from Heat

I might have just seen the best action-thriller movie ever. It’s just that this 2-hour movie exists within the 170-minutes of Heat, but I’m sure that it’s there and it’s amazing. It has this riveting and intense cat-and-mouse chase between the De Niro-led gang of criminals and the Pacino-led LA police. It has some of the most raw, visceral and well-crafted shootout sequences I’ve seen, including a particularly incredible one in the middle of downtown LA. It knows how to pace itself, can maintain tension even in its quiet moments, and has one of the most electric scenes you can ever have between two people talking in a diner.

What it doesn’t have is the rushed and underdeveloped subplot of how a bank robber meets a younger woman, falls for her, and how he wants to give up his life of crime so they could run off into the sunset. It neither has the story of a cop having domestic problems due to his dedication to his job, nor does it have the totally disjointed backstory of a getaway driver who just gets killed and dropped from the plot completely.

Thus is the predicament of Heat: It tries to be both a thrilling heist film and a romantic-drama at the same time. The good news is that it still succeeds at being the former. In fact, as a more taut and focused two-hour film, it can be considered the high point of the genre. The bad news is that Michael Mann really does not know how to do drama, and he’s even more inept at developing a believable romance. The one and only such scene that I felt worked in the film was at the end when Charlene (Ashley Judd) makes a sacrifice for her husband at the last second. That worked and it was powerful. The other bits of melodrama, not so much.

It’s almost as if Michael Mann thinks that his films can’t be compelling within the action and suspense only. The funny thing is that without the melodrama, his films actually are quite compelling. Watching De Niro’s Neil McCauley and Pacino’s Vincent Hanna – two passionate individuals who are similar in so many ways, yet find themselves on the opposite ends of a tense situation – is already an interesting setup that doesn’t need dramatic flourishes to support it.

I understand and appreciate how Mann was trying to make the stakes higher for both of them by including McCauley’s romance and Hannah’s domestic drama, but it just makes me wish that he was much better at writing these things. In any case, the parallels that one can draw between them is intriguing and the way in which Mann increasingly blurs the gray line between good and bad is fascinating. Ultimately seeing them understand, respect and admire each other through the conflict is what ends up being the most compelling thing about the story. Considering they both know that only one of them can come out of it alive ends up being bittersweet

Rating: B (good)

Thief (1981)

James Caan in the opening heist scene from Thief

Two mysterious characters come out in the dead of night. The bright streetlights contrast with the dark in stark noir fashion. Rain falls. Smoke fills a lifeless alley. Two thieves work their magic as a riveting musical score pulsates in the background. This is the opening scene to Thief. It runs for ten minutes yet feels like it just blows by once the pair of robbers drive back to their hideout as the sun rises on downtown Chicago. It exhibits the type of patience, control and meticulous attention to detail that one would think it was put together by a seasoned director. But it’s not.

If there were any opening scene from a feature film debut that one could say typifies the potential of a budding filmmaker, this would be it. In Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature, he exudes the visual and aural pizazz of an auteur far beyond his years. He juggles tones with expert dexterity at the same time filling the screen with a flamboyant style, which is to be his trademark in later years. He nails the gritty and sinister atmosphere of a vintage noir. He enthralls with thrilling and bloody action sequences. And amidst all of this, he compellingly tells the story of a tragic hero determined to follow his plans on his terms.

At the heart of it is James Caan infusing his innate tough-guy bravado into the character of an ex-convict we only know as Frank. He’s a businessman by day, running both a used car shop and a bar to front his criminal operations. But during the night is where the real money is, as he and his partner Barry (James Belushi) carefully map out and execute various diamond scores. The grand plan at the center of all of this being the realization of a perfect, normal life. A life with a wife, a child and a modest home in the suburbs.

It’s at this point where Mann shows a knack for playing with the viewer’s sympathies. When Frank’s fence bites the dust, all hell breaks loose. His plans get thrown off the rails, and try as he might to get them back on track his way, it becomes increasingly apparent that the only way may have to be by force. By the time the film draws to its climax, we find ourselves rooting for the criminal – this stubborn, hardened thief – hoping against hope that he comes out of it alive with his dreams intact.

Thief is precise and detailed. It’s intricately planned and slickly executed. It drills down to the details such as testing the voltage of wires for information and running an extinguisher under a thermal lance while melting away at a safe to make sure nothing catches fire. In fact it’s the perfect metaphor for the movie and that’s where the strength of the film ultimately lies. It’s such an intricately-made piece of work in that every shot, every edit, every scene and line of dialogue seems like it’s all been painstakingly plotted on a map.

Rating: B (good)