The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid

There is an anecdote about a meeting between Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin in which Einstein commends the comedian by saying, “What I most admire about your art is your universality. You don’t say a word, yet the world understands you.”

To which Chaplin answered, “It is true, but your glory is even greater. The whole world admires you even though they don’t understand a word of what you say.”

What Einstein says is true, and how Chaplin reacts exemplifies his knack for sharp, truthful comedy. Throughthrough his nameless characters, Chaplin is able to let his viewers relate with the most universal themes in life: Love, loss, happiness, and sadness, while at the same time delivering among the most timeless comedy in cinema history. We laugh, we cry, and we empathize. The Kid is a film that is driven purely on heart – the source of our deepest feelings of joy and sorrow – and the reason why the film endures almost a century later.

The film begins with Edna Purviance as a single mother without the means to raise her newborn child. In desperation, she decides to leave the infant inside a car owned by a wealthy family. After she leaves, two thieves appear and steal the vehicle with the newborn inside. When they discover the baby crying in the backseat, they dump it somewhere in the slums where it is then chanced upon by a carefree tramp (as played by Chaplin, in his iconic character’s first feature film appearance). After a comedy of errors trying to get rid of the child, the tramp eventually accepts his fate and takes in the newborn as his own, seemingly undaunted by his hilarious inadequacies as a parent.

The story that follows largely involves the exploits of this unlikely duo five years later, and is most of the films’ source of comedy. Due to the film’s simple plot, the gags play out somewhat as a vignette of comedic skits surrounding the tandem of the tramp and the kid.  It features the surrogate father and son hustling through the city streets trying to make a not-so-honest living, then them roughing it up in the middle of the rural neighborhood, and also making ends meet in their small but cozy apartment space. What shines through the clever and witty humor is their odd partnership as equals, which sees the kid loving and caring for the tramp as much as the tramp does for the kid.  And similarly, Jackie Coogan serves as a most capable co-star, not at all playing second fiddle to Chaplin, but instead sharing the limelight in what is one of the best child performances of all-time.

The only thing that seems to stifle the momentum that the film builds throughout Chaplin’s exploration of this father-son relationship is when the mother comes back into the picture. While I realize the importance of this character, if there’s anything to be said against the story, it most likely has to do with the mundanity of the mother who seems to function mostly as a device to move the narrative forward through odd contrivances and coincidences. I guess such is life though with its quirky twists of fate; but I was far less interested in anything involving Purivance than Chaplin and Coogan, so I would still consider her a weak link.

Other smaller issues creep up towards the ending such as maybe that dream sequence seemed out of place (it felt more like a device to showcase some cool camera tricks than anything else) or that the ending of the film felt a little too abrupt. In the end though, Chaplin’s ability to deftly balance slapstick and melodrama in a neat package wins over anything that could said about The Kid. Here is a film that knows exactly what it’s set out to do: It opens with the following words: “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear” – and that is exactly what we get.

Rating: B+ (great)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

James Stewart, Margaret Sullivan and the cast of The Shop Around the Corner

Considering that I grew up in the 90s and that I have a special place in my heart for romantic comedies, I feel like I need to put this out there: I’ve seen and enjoyed You’ve Got Mail eleventy-hundred-thousand times over. So imagine my surprise upon watching The Shop Around The Corner when the narrative takes a turn about half an hour in that plays exactly like a scene from You’ve Got Mail. I had to stop the film for a while and do some Googling because the similarities were too uncanny. Lo and behold, they were that similar because they’re based on the same play. From that point onwards, it was impossible for me to watch the film without the 90’s romcom at the back of my mind; and it’s similarly impossible for me to write this review without comparing the two.

While the films do have many similarities, the finer details of the story are what sets this 40’s film and its 90’s version apart. The Shop Around the Corner revolves around the lives of a group of gift shop employees, which Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is a part of and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) later joins. You’ve Got Mail on the other hand, revolves for two hours around Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The genius of the setup of The Shop Around the Corner is that we aren’t drowned with the romance of the two leads for the entire film. Where You’ve Got Mail treats its supporting cast merely as characters whose lives seem to revolve around Hanks and Ryan without desires and passions of their own, The Shop Around the Corner fleshes out its ensemble a lot more.

The film explores the relationships between the various employees and their employer, Hugo Matuschek. There is interaction, drama and subplots removed from the central romance, which serves to enhance the story further and give it layers that its modern-day counterpart just doesn’t have. There is a duplicitous, two-faced antagonist. There is how Matuschek casts a fatherly aura on his employees, which the film explores as we are treated to his day-to-day interactions with everyone from his most trusted and tenured employee down to the ambitious, precocious delivery boy. Considering the film is almost half an hour shorter than You’ve Got Mail, it’s notable how much more the viewer has to sink their teeth into. In addition, Stewart and Sullivan’s easy chemistry as the adorable leads, with the light and gentle manner in which Lubitsch treats the material only serves to enhance it even further.

Yes, the general structure of The Shop Around The Corner and You’ve Got Mail are exactly the same: Man meets woman. They hate each others’ guts. Man and woman are in love with their respective penpals. Man then discovers that the woman is in fact, actually his mysterious penpal. He decides to keep it to himself. Afterwards, the man befriends the woman, they fall in love, and he reveals himself to her in the story’s heartwarming climax. It’s a romance so saccharine that it easily appeals to the hopeless romantic; thus, it easily appeals to me. So ultimately, with a backbone as solid as Miklos Laszlo’s Parfumerie to bank upon, one really can’t go wrong with either film. The Shop Around the Corner in particular though, is just the more taut film that manages to say more in less time.

Rating: B+ (great)

The Insider (1999)

Russell Crowe in The Insider

Conflict doesn’t necessarily arise from the battle between good and evil. There are times when conflict comes from the push and pull of multiple opposing goods. Sometimes, this type of conflict is even a more tenuous struggle and a more gripping drama. The Insider is one such example of this.

The film tackles the true story of whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). It follows how he discloses confidential information regarding the tobacco industry with the help of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and the multitude of troubles that befall him because of it. It’s a story that, at face value, may be far from relatable for a lot of people. Yet the basic concerns that it touches on are the types of simple issues that can unsettle most of us.

It begins with Wigand and Bergman in parallel plotlines. The former getting fired from his job at tobacco giant Brown & Williamson and the latter getting an anonymous package of documents in the mail. Their paths intersect when Bergman searches for help to interpret the documents and he ends up being pointed to the direction of Wigand.

For about half an hour into the film the viewer is kept in the dark. What are in the documents? Why was Wigand released from his job? Mann patiently builds on the suspense until it’s revealed that Wigand is in possession of information that could wreak havoc not only on Brown & Williamson, but the entire tobacco industry. Once he decides to release the information via 60 Minutes, the film switches gears and Mann pulls out the thrills.

Now, as thrilling as it is to watch pristinely crafted gunfights, heists, car chases and the like, there’s nothing that brings out a more raw emotional response than that which taps into a person’s basest fears. In this film, Mann tones down the action to almost zero, yet reaches heights in terms of thrill and suspense that he hadn’t previously achieved with his more visceral work.

Throughout the predicament, one finds it very easy to be sympathetic and relate to the troubles of the poor family man out on a quest for justice. We want Big Tobacco to pay for their irresponsible conduct. We want our family to be safe and financially stable. We want our journalists to always put integrity and the search for truth before anything else. We want to believe that money and power is not everything in this world. So when the film shows us the peril and desperation that befalls a man who is on the right side in all of this, what else can we do but rage?

The Insider sees Michael Mann at the top of his game. There are moments when you can see him struggling to maintain the subtlety and nuance required for certain portions of the film, but he pulls it off. If ever there are lapses into heavy-handedness, they are very minor. As it stands, this is his most cohesive work. It highlights his ability to squeeze every ounce of tension from situations that most people can relate to and solidifies him as a master of his craft.

Rating: B+ (great)