Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bright City Lights

"It doesn't get any better than this."
- My friend Terry, just before we sat down for a screening of City Lights in our American Film Comedy class.

I could not love any movie more than I love City Lights. It speaks to my heart, to my soul, to my loneliness, and to my fear of love more than anything else.
-Journal entry, December 15, 1996, 2 AM

Maybe that's what Chaplin had in mind-that all of us are blind, and afraid of being seen at the same time. But the only way to love-and be loved is to see past the barriers, and to let oneself be seen without them.
-Journal entry, January 7, 1997, 11:51 PM

City Lights is the most beautiful film ever made. When I say beauty, I don't mean that it has stunning visuals or superb effects. Its beauty is beneath the surface. Like the clownish tramp played by Charlie Chaplin, it is masked in humor. Only in the end are the lines in his pantomime face revealed.

When that happens, it is one of the most striking moments in cinema history.

But before we get to that point, writer/director Chaplin tells the tale of "A Tramp," who falls in love with a "Blind Flower Girl." She is poor, supporting herself and her grandmother by selling flowers on the street. Chaplin is able to help her out and fool her into thinking he's a wealthy gentleman.

What helps lift the film from schmaltzy love story to work of art is the care Chaplin put into the development of this simple plot. For instance, he struggled for a plausible way for the blind girl to believe Chaplin is rich. The scene that sets up her confusion is choreographed to perfection. Chaplin climbs through the backseat of a parked car, exiting near the girl. When she hears the door close, she asks him to purchase a flower. Enchanted by her beauty, he buys one from her. But as she is getting his change, the real owner of the car returns, shutting the door and making the girl believe Chaplin has gone off. When she calls out to him, Chaplin realizes her mistake and he backs off. Thus, she is fooled into thinking he's much more than a street tramp.

The ruse continues thanks to Chaplin's inebriated relationship with "An Eccentric Millionaire," portrayed by Harry Myers. The running theme of the film is that Chaplin's tramp is only accepted by other members of society if they are somehow "blinded" and cannot see who he really is.

In addition to the pathos of City Lights, Chaplin presents some of the funniest sequences ever seen on film: the first meeting between Chaplin and the millionaire; their subsequent "night on the town"; and perhaps most memorable, a prizefight Chaplin competes in to win money for the girl.

Another interesting aspect of the film involves Virginia Cherrill, who stars as "Blind Flower Girl." Unlike the majority of his female co-stars, Chaplin was not romantically involved with Cherrill, and in fact they didn't get along. In the documentary Unknown Chaplin it tells how Chaplin became frustrated enough with Cherrill to consider replacing her with his lover at the time (and The Gold Rush co-star) Georgia Hale. Chaplin went so far as to film Hale in the film's final scene. But the actress, clearly in love with Chaplin, could not convey the complex emotions that the flower girl must feel in order to give the scene its poignancy. As it turns out, Cherrill was the ideal choice.

While I know some reject City Lights as overly sentimental, I think they have misread the film. Certainly it is on the surface, but to me the film is much deeper. And the emotions evoked by the final scene are more challenging. Chaplin is taking the Tramp, who was already a well-known (if not quite iconic) image when the film came out, and presenting him as more than just the caricature that audiences had come to know and love. It is the most "real" moment for the character-filled with ambiguity. Rather than sentimental, the ending strikes me more as revealing and even risky.

City Lights is a silent film in the sense that there is no "spoken" dialogue. But a beautiful score written by Chaplin compliments it, and as I wrote in my journal entry, it really does "speak" to the viewer. The language of film goes well beyond the dialogue spoken between actors. It is the expressions, the actions, and the looks. Few films demonstrate this connection between viewer and film in the way that City Lights does.

*This review originally ran on the web message board Moviola at

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Favorite Freakin' Movies of All Time

This is a repost of my favorite films, with a few minor changes.

I've only numbered the Top 10 (and I cheat a bit, as you'll see). The rest are listed randomly. The list was originally compiled about a year ago by jogging my memory, plus glancing at several online "greatest film" lists: AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies; Cinescene 100; and IMDB Top 250.

A couple things to keep in mind. These are personal favorites, not necessarily the films I consider the *greatest* -- though obviously there's overlap. Except for the very top of this list (my favorite has held that position for many years) this is a fluid list.

1. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931) My favorite since the very first time I saw it in a film comedy class back in college. It's incredibly funny, poignant and like most of the films I admire, poses questions about the line between the artist and the audience and the meaning of film. The greatest ending, ever.

I think it's fair to say this film taps into my tendency toward hopeless situations when it comes to love. I know the ending is somewhat hopeful, but I always read a little uncertainty in Virginia Cherrill's performance as the flower girl. It is worth noting that among Chaplin's leading ladies, she was one of the few, perhaps the only one, he never became romantically involved with. He even considered replacing her and filmed scenes with his lover at the time, Georgia Hale. In the end he made the right choice--Cherrill's hesitancy adds poignancy to the scene that Hale's obvious affection never could. Go here to read a longer essay on my City Lights obsession.

2. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003)
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002)
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)

In order to save some room in the "Top 10" I decided to list all three Rings films together. And the truth is, I really do view them as one very long movie. I believe that each can stand alone. Fellowship (the Extended Edition) is arguably the best of the three. But even as I write that I think of how Gollum in The Two Towers gives us the most heartbreaking character of the series; and The Return of the King has the emotional, satisfying conclusion. Yup, it's one long-ass movie. You can read "Diary of a Hobbit Fiend," my series of columns on The Return of the King here.

3. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)
While I've always loved this film, it took on greater meaning for me in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on my hometown. I went through a very dark period back then and Shawshank, with it's beautiful message of hope, helped me to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just thinking about the ending gives me chills.

4. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
No doubt about it, Casablanca is on all those "best films ever" lists for a good reason. Some of its many merits: Among the greatest and most quotable dialog, ever: "We'll always have Paris," "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine," "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world," and of course, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." It's also a great love triangle where all three people are worth loving (in most films it's so obvious who should get the girl...I'll never be sure with Casablanca). Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid... 'nuff said.

I think it's interesting that one of the most romantic films of all time ends on a note that is more about honor and friendship than love...but then again, perhaps those things are all about love.

5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) and Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
Okay, I can't use the same excuse that I did with LOTR... but... let's just consider these my two favorite "OMG I love Harrison Ford!" films from my youth. I just can't choose between Indiana Jones and Han Solo. And both films are an amazing mixture of adventure and comic fun. These have a special place in my heart because they made me fall in love with movies.

6. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
It wasn't until I was older and became more of a cinephile that I saw Samurai and realized that some of the films I loved the most probably wouldn't have been made--or at least not as well--without the brilliant influence of Kurosawa. This film is just one example of his skill and if I was listing my favorite filmmakers of all time, he'd probably top the list.

7. E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
Perfect when I first saw it as a kid. Perfect today. And yeah, it makes me cry like a baby.

8. Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)
Joseph Cotten uses his incredible voice to create one of my favorite villains of all time. Hitchcock is also in my top five of directors, and this is my favorite of his works.

9. The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)
Before he was "King of the World" or did Aliens (among my favorite action films), Cameron worked with The Governator and created this lean, mean, Sci-fi, B-movie masterpiece. I still remember the first time I saw it, in the last row of a theater so packed (before stadium seating) that I had to sit on the back of the seat to see properly.

10. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) While most of Allen's films are about NYC in some way, this to me is the quintessential NYC film (even more so than Manhattan, which I admire but don't have as much personal affection for) -- It's got some of the greatest observations about life and love, too. I used it as inspiration to break up with a boyfriend once after watching it and realizing that the metaphor used in the film (a dead shark that doesn't move forward) was what my relationship had turned into. You can read more of my thoughts on the film here.

And the rest:

Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)
Greatest movie musical, ever.

Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Moving, harrowing... oddly beautiful. I don't love the ending, but everything else is perfect.

Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
Greatest war movie, ever.

The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
My first experience of "falling in love" with a film character (and having my heart wrenched from me because of what happens...ugh).

Babe (Chris Noonan, 1995)
Greatest talking pig movie, ever. :D

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)
I love movies about movies, and this is among the best. I think it is compared most often to Keaton, but I actually think it is more in line with Chaplin and the longing to cross the divide between the audience and the screen.

Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
Anime film that is seriously one of the saddest films I've ever seen. Period.

Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle(Hayao Miyazaki, 2001 and 2005)
Both are uplifting and magical in so many ways. All of Miyazaki's films have these qualities--he is a unique artist.

Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
King Lear as interpreted by Kurosawa. Has among the best battle scenes ever filmed.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)
A great update of the original. Cameron's skills are at his peak here--Titanic may have won all the Oscars, but I think this is his best film (though the first remains my favorite in large part because of mega-crush Kyle Reese).

Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
If I was 10 years younger, I'd probably put "Before Sunrise," the first in this series, on here instead. As it is, I'm not that young anymore *sob* and I relate more to the characters in the sequel. An amazingly tense film despite being one long conversation between two characters. I wrote more about the film here.

Stand by Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)
River Phoenix, the most tragic loss of a young actor in my time. I can only wonder at what could have been...At least we have his brilliant brother, but the world would be a better place if he was still alive.

The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998)
The Dude abides...

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
Hudson: *Seventeen days?* Hey man, I don't wanna rain on your parade, but we're not gonna last seventeen hours! Those things are gonna come in here just like they did before. And they're gonna come in here...
Ripley: Hudson!
Hudson: ...and they're gonna come in here AND THEY'RE GONNA KILL US!
Ripley: HUDSON! This little girl survived longer than that with no weapons and no training.
[to Newt]
Ripley: Right?
[Newt apes a salute]
Hudson: So why don't you put her in charge?

*I freakin' love Hudson*

Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
Another film about film...notice a pattern? This time with Johnny Depp as the greatest bad filmmaker, ever.

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
I prefer the sequel, but a great, claustrophobic, horror film.

The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
"Luke I'm your..." (You get the picture.)

The Godfather, Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
I think The Godfather may be a less problematic film (Part II feels a little long, especially the Havana sequence)...but in terms of the emotional drama, Michael Corleone's eroding soul packs a greater punch. And then there's De Niro as the young Vito.

It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
Mad-cap screwball comedy at its best, with the sublime Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
I've heard the remake is excellent, though I haven't seen it. The original is a great political thriller.

Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
Incoherent and overly busy in parts, gorgeous as a whole.

The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
Creepiest film and film villain (played by Robert Mitchum)...also contains the single creepiest shot...yikes...

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
Great chemistry between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint...And where did that plane come from and why is it trying to kill Cary Grant? I love that Hitchcock had the audacity and got away with it. Brilliant stuff.

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
Ahhh, more screwball with the queen, Katharine Hepburn, this time playing off Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.

Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)
I was obsessed with this film in High School. From what I've seen of Oliver Stone the person (interviews, a panel discussion I attended after 9/11) he's an arrogant prick... but he is a skilled, intense filmmaker.

The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987)
I love a good fairytale. And it's damn funny, too.

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Samuel L. Jackson kicks ass, the soundtrack is genius (not just because the songs are great, but because they *fit* the film, a talent Tarantino has like no other) and the influence on other filmmakers is endless (though not always a good thing).

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
Comedy brilliance (and yet another film that crosses the divide between the audience and the screen--Purple Rose of Cairo is hugely influenced by it) from the other great Silent Screen Legend. I viewed it most recently on Sept. 11, 2006 and it had not lost its charms. You can read my recent thoughts on it here.

The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
Night needs to stop ripping himself off, because you just can't repeat the shock of this film's twist. One of the dumbest things I've ever done when it comes to film viewing is have someone spoil it for me before I saw it. I'll never know if I would have guessed beforehand (the clues pointing to the twist are abundant).

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
Marilyn Monroe showing she was much more than a dumb blonde while playing the part; Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag. Lemmon is blissfully funny, especially in love.

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
Jack Lemmon again, this time opposite the adorable Shirley MacLaine in this rather cynical romantic comedy.

Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)
Visually astounding war film and an interesting meditation on identity. Recently came out on Criterion DVD... a later masterpiece from Kurosawa.

Dogfight (Nancy Savoca, 1991)
Another reminder of how much we lost when River died... Begins with a cruel, immature joke and then becomes so much more. A gentle, moving film.

Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
Hitchcock with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman... Among Hitchcock's most sensual films as the sparks fly between his stars in one of the best examples of onscreen chemistry I can think of.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (Ed Wood, 1959)
Colonel Tom Edwards: ...Why, a particle of sunlight can't even be seen or measured.
Eros: Can you see or measure an atom? Yet you can *explode* one. A ray of sunlight is made up of *many* atoms!
Jeff Trent: So what if we *do* develop this Solanite bomb? We'd be even a stronger nation than now.
Eros: [with disgust] Stronger. You see? You see? You're stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!
Jeff Trent: That's all I'm taking from you!
[pistol-whips Eros upside the head]

(You really have to see the above exchange from the movie to get the full impact.)
That's right: Bad dialog, crap acting, nonsensical plot, bizarre framing device... In other words, greatest bad movie, ever. Pure unintentional comic genius.

The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
Beautiful film with a great score.

Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
A great gimmick that works.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003 and 2004)
Kick-ass Uma. Great Tarantino soundtrack.

Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989)
An amazing cast that included Denzel Washington (earning his first Oscar), Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, Cary Elwes and Andre Braugher (my favorite television actor from my favorite show, "Homicide," back when I still watched tv.)

Hero (Yimou Zhang, 2002)
Martial arts like a ballet. Beautiful.

Breaking Away (Peter Yates, 1979)
Among the best coming of age films ever made.

King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005)
Maybe it's too soon to include, but I just can't deny how much I love this excessive but wonderful film about an ape and his gal. Jackson's love of cinema pops off the screen. Check out more of my Kong Love.

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
I've never been a huge fan of John Wayne, but this is a remarkable and effective performance. As Ethan Edwards he's still heroic, but also a seething racist. Then there's those Monument Valley vistas: breathtaking.