Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

American Movie Critics: Robert E. Sherwood and Edmund Wilson

Ryan McNeil of The Matinee and I are reading through the American Movie Critics anthology and discussing each chapter as we go, crossposting on each of our blogs.

After a few weeks of interruption (thanks, TIFF!), Ryan and I are back with another installment of our conversations about the American Movie Critics anthology. This time, we’re covering pieces by Robert E. Sherwood and Edmund Wilson from the mid-1920s. One of these days we’re going to get to talking pictures! Sherwood is best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, but he spent 1920-1928 writing film reviews for Life. The pair of reviews show him as a prototypical weekly reviewer, neither an enthusiast about the movies nor dismissive of them, but a pretty solid guide for the average moviegoer, honest about what he likes and dislikes with a straightforward and casual tone. Wilson was one of America’s greatest literary critics who also found time to write about virtually every kind of art (film, theatre, dance, art, etc.) for the New Republic. We only have one piece by him, an analytical and appreciative look at Charlie Chaplin in general and The Gold Rush in particular, but the intro blurb in the anthology mentions that he was skeptical of typical Hollywood movies, so I’m not sure this piece is totally representative.

Edmund Wilson, literary critic

Edmund Wilson, literary critic

So after two poets and a psychologist, we arrive at a playwright-as-critic. In a way, one would think that we’ve found the “most qualified” critic yet, since Robert Sherwood likely has the best grasp on narrative structure.

I’m not sure I’m willing to grant that a playwright should be better at being a film critic, merely because of a grasp of narrative structure – films may be a narrative medium at their base, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing to be judged, or even the most important one! Taken at stereotyped face value, a playwright might be good, for instance, at analyzing plot structure and dialogue without being skilled at all at analyzing visual motifs or editing, which are not part of plays (or not a major part). But I don’t mean at all to assign those deficiencies to Sherwood. He does focus on the storytelling, I think, but not to the exclusion of other elements of filmmaking, and in fact, calls attention to his dislike (in both reviews!) of the visual technique of tinting certain scenes/elements for greater emphasis.

That sort of begs a question that we might run into again later, but what sort of qualifications do you think make for a good critic?

I don’t think there are necessarily an incontrovertible set of qualifications. Critics have different strengths and weaknesses, some have particular affinity and aptitude for some critical approaches rather than others, and it’s this diversity that makes reading lots of different critics interesting and informative. That said, if I had to outline a few qualities (not qualifications) that make good critics, I would choose open-mindedness, curiosity, close observation of detail, and wide-ranging interests (not only in film, but outside it).

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Charlie Chaplin, the Lone Adventurer

“In the meantime, it may be that his present series of pictures – The Kid, The Pilgrim and The Gold Rush – with their gags and their overtones of tragedy, their adventures half-absurd, half-realistic, their mythical hero, now a figure of poetry, now a type out of the comic strips, represents the height of Chaplin’s achievement. He could scarcely, in any field, surpass the best moments of these pictures. The opening of The Gold Rush is such a moment. Charlie is a lone adventurer, straggling along after a party of prospectors among the frozen hills: he twirls his cane a little to keep his spirits up. On his way through a narrow mountain pass, a bear emerges and follows him. Any ordinary movie comedian, given the opportunity of using a bear, would, of course, have had it chasing him about for as long as he could work up gags for it. But Charlie does not know that the bear is there: he keeps on, twirling his cane. Presently the beast withdraws, and only then does Charlie think he hears something: he turns around, but there is nothing there. And he sets off again, still fearless, toward the dreadful ordeals that await him.”

– Edmund Wilson, 1924 (excerpted in American Movie Critics)

Scorecard: March 2012

[At the end of every month I post a rundown of the movies I saw that month, tallying them according to how much I did or didn’t like them. You can always see my recent watches here and my ongoing list of bests for the whole year here.]

Yes, I realize this is now exactly one month late. I blame two things – the TCM Film Fest and how gorram difficult it was to pound out that Blind Spot review of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which I wanted to finish before posting this recap which includes it. But now it’s done and I’m already working on April’s, so hopefully I should have that ready soon. Though it is extremely large, given the aforementioned TCM Film Fest. By the way, I haven’t posted anything on that here outside of the initial preview – I meant to, but time has been short – but there are a few reviews and more on the way over on Row Three.

What I Really Liked

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

So after I struggled quite a lot figuring out how I wanted to rate and review this film (see my Blind Spot entry for it), it ended up coming in the respectable high 600s on my Flickchart, which is basically square in my “really liked it” section. I’m not sure I actually “really liked” it, but it’s probably a fairly good spot for it, considering how many sides of me were warring over the film. For the record, when I FIRST ranked it immediately after watching it, it was in the 1100s somewhere. So it has definitely gone up in my estimation with a few weeks to mull it over. Anyway. I wrote a lot about it in the other post, so I won’t bother writing more here.

1966 USA. Director: Mike Nichols. Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, George Segal.
Seen March 21 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 621 out of 2901

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

This was one that was on Jonathan’s list for me to see, and I pretty much went into it knowing nothing about it. Even though I had no expectations, it was not what I expected. :) Mostly because I always forget it’s directed by Terry Gilliam – whenever I remembered that, the batshit insane things going on onscreen made sense. Er, “made sense” is a poor choice of expression. Nothing in this movie (purportedly about a journalist heading to Las Vegas to cover a race) makes sense, but that’s what you expect from Gilliam – and apparently Hunter S. Thompson, though I have no familiarity with his work beyond this. Basically this movie is a very long, very whacked out drug trip, and while that description doesn’t usually appeal to me, this movie is almost non-stop WTF fun. And it’s definitely the best thing I’ve seen Johnny Depp do for a while (“this here’s bat country”). Like most Gilliam movies, it goes off the rails at the end (how could it not, in this case?), and I had some issues following the chronology that made some of the later parts a little less enjoyable, but I really had fun with it overall, even if I spent three quarters of the movie with my jaw dropped going “I can’t believe that just happened.”

1998 USA. Director: Terry Gilliam. Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci.
Seen March 30 on Criterion Blu-ray.
Flickchart ranking: 622 out of 2901

The Raid: Redemption

I first heard of this film after a few glowing reviews from friends who saw it at TIFF, who praised it for its non-stop, well-choreographed, high-octane fighting, even though the story of a SWAT team invading a drug lord’s apartment building is a little sparse. For a little while I was afraid I’d misheard and it was gonna be all guns, which would’ve been boring and just needlessly violent (in a boring way). But then the hand-to-hand stuff started, and all of that was awesome. So yeah. Just enough story to string a nearly 100-minute long fight scene on, and that was enough. Also, it was surprisingly well-paced for basically being a long fight scene, with some breather sections in there at just the right times. Definitely had fun with this.

2010 Indonesia. Director: Gareth Evans. Starring: Iko Uwais, Ananda George, Ray Sahetapy, Yayan Ruhian.
Seen March 24 at Arclight Hollywood.
Flickchart ranking: 991 out of 2901

The Hunger Games

The immense amount of hype and some decently cut trailers got me into the theatre for this even though I haven’t read the book, and I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Not that the film is a perfect one – the direction is lackluster and the camerawork and editing falls into all the traps of chaos cinema, using closeup shakicam and frenetic editing for no purpose whatsoever. That did kind of settle down a bit as the film went on, though most fight scenes were still indecipherable. And yet, I truly enjoyed the film anyway, because Katniss Everdeen is simply a great character, and Jennifer Lawrence does a great job of portraying her. She’s everything a hero should be – brave but not arrogant, intelligent but not infallible, trying to do the right thing, but often conflicted. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of her onscreen, so I’m hoping that Gary Ross’s replacement will not have quite as much affection for annoying camera and editing techniques.

2012 USA. Director: Gary Ross. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks.
Seen March 31 at AMC Burbank.
Flickchart ranking: 964 out of 2901


This film has a pretty killer opening, with a sans-make-up Joan Crawford stumbling down a Los Angeles street in a daze, calling out the name “David” over and over again. She soon collapses and is taken to a hospital, where she eventually becomes well enough to tell what happened to her. The film settles into a more conventional noir melodrama, but as with any of these films, the interesting bits are in the details. The David she was searching for is Van Heflin, a man who she’d been obsessed with earlier, but who hadn’t returned her love. He’s basically an homme fatale, taking the place of the femme fatale so much more common in noir – he pops in every once in a while to turn the emotional knife in Crawford’s gut, with never a care in the world beyond himself. Eventually she snaps, falling into a schizophrenia that has her believing all sorts of things happened that didn’t, and the film is told closely enough from her point of view that it’s often hard for us to tell what’s real and what isn’t. The film may try to do too much, between the unrequited love, eventual loveless marriage, love triangle, stepmother-stepdaughter conflict, nurse-patient trauma, schizophrenia, murder/suicide/accident plot, and whatever else. But Crawford holds it together, and the noirish cinematography makes it often very interesting to look at. There’s a tracking shot near the beginning as she’s being wheeled into the hospital – her POV, so all ceilings going by until the exam room and two doctors pop their heads into the frame to exam her/the camera. Very nice, and alerts us immediately we’re in her shoes for the duration. That’s not an isolated good shot, either – the film is full of them. Not necessarily flashy or attention-grabbing, but effective and effortless.

1947 USA. Director: Curtis Bernhardt. Starring: Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey, Geraldine Brooks.
Seen March 22 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 1224 out of 2901

What I Liked

Lilac Time

Capitalizing on his memorable single scene in 1927’s Wings, Gary Cooper played a WWI pilot again in this film, which is not nearly as great a film, but still quite watchable and with some very endearing parts. Colleen Moore is cute as a button as the French girl who tends to a contingent of British pilots stationed in France. They’re “her boys” as she feeds them, entertains them, carefully counts their returning planes and mourns for any losses, but when Cooper joins them, her affections run a little deeper for him. The film is really solid until the melodrama of their probably doomed romance takes over everything else, kind of ruining the great group dynamic the film had worked so carefully to balance for the first three quarters. Even so, it was an enjoyable watch, Moore was enchanting (especially in the lighter earlier sections), and it’s fun to see Cooper so young.

1928 USA. Director: George Fitzmaurice. Starring: Colleen Moore, Gary Cooper, Burr McIntosh, George Cooper, Cleve Moore.
Seen March 7 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 1499 out of 2901

Rewatches – Loved

Modern Times

I ended up writing a whole long post about this film after seeing it at Cinefamily a few weeks ago, so I won’t belabor the point here. It’s in my all-time Top Twenty on Flickchart, so it’s pretty clear how much I adore this film. Even though I would probably now tend to favor Keaton et al over Chaplin et al, there’s not much that can come close to my love for Modern Times.

1936 USA. Director: Charles Chaplin. Starring: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard.
Seen March 14 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 19 out of 2901

Rewatches – Liked

The Circus

It had been quite a while since I last saw The Circus, which is sandwiched up between The Gold Rush and City Lights in Chaplin’s filmography and rarely gets as much attention as either of those films. And granted, it may not be quite as amazing as they are, but it is still a pretty freaking awesome movie. Chaplin’s Tramp runs into a circus as he’s being chased by the police (this is after a tremendously funny and exciting chase through an amusement part, with way more sight gags and baits-and-switches than I remembered) and ends up inadvertently becoming the hit of the show. But not all goes as well for him on the personal front, as he falls in love with the ringmaster’s daughter, who only has eyes for the tightrope walker. The story invokes all of Chaplin’s trademark pathos, and has a lot of magnificent set-pieces as well – the most well-known are when Chaplin tries the tightrope walking himself, and when he accidentally locks himself into a cage with a lion. This film is definitely a worthy entry in Chaplin’s filmography, and gag for gag, probably as funny as any of them.

1928 USA. Director: Charles Chaplin. Starring: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Allan Garcia, Harry Crocker, Henry Bergman, George Davis.
Seen March 28 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 728 out of 2901


I still think the third act falls apart, though I will say I didn’t mind it as much on a second viewing, when I knew what to expect and wasn’t totally thrown off-guard by the tonal shift. I still much prefer the more meditative part before they find the Icarus I, but I can understand better now where that last bit was trying to go. I just don’t think it totally worked. That said, I did have a fun time this go-around finding comparisons to Apocalypse Now (I hadn’t seen it yet last time I watched Sunshine). Even with the third act let-down, it’s still a pretty top-notch sci-fi movie, and I like the film overall enough to still rank it pretty highly.

2007 UK. Director: Danny Boyle. Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Troy Garity, Cliff Curtis, Mark Strong.
Seen March 24 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 854 out of 2901

A Shot in the Dark

When this popped up on Instant, I was seized with a sudden desire to rewatch it, since I hadn’t in a very very long time, so I made Jon watch it, too (he hadn’t seen it before at all). It’s easily the best of the Pink Panther films, with Clouseau taking center stage and getting himself into some pretty ridiculous situations. I will say, though, that the comedy was a lot slower and less hysterical than I’d remembered – it really takes its time setting up gags and letting them play out perhaps a bit longer than necessary. I won’t say I was disappointed – I still think it works quite well as both a comedy and a mystery, but memory had amped up the hilarity more than is actually the case.

1964 UK. Director: Blake Edwards. Starring: Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders, Herbert Lom, Tracy Reed.
Seen March 2 on Instant Watch
Flickchart ranking: 749 out of 2901

Links I Like: Nov 26, 2011

I have been severely lacking in time to get my link love posts finished (or read other blogs, to be honest…sorry guys!). Some of these have been sitting in a draft post for weeks now, but the posts are good enough (and not time sensitive) that I still want to draw attention to them for anyone who hasn’t happened to read them yet.

Lucking Out and Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by The Self-Styled Siren

There have been a whole lot of posts about Pauline Kael lately, thanks to the recent publication of a new collection of her writings, a new biography of her by Brian Kellow, and a new memoir by James Wolcott that includes many memories of her. This one from the Self-Styled Siren is one of the best, discussing both Kellow’s and Wolcott’s accounts as well as her own uneasy relationship with Kael’s criticism. And that’s a theme among most of the posts, as it is in my own life. I first became aware of Kael as a young film buff, probably thirteen or so, from 5001 Nights at the Movies, a collection of her New Yorker capsule reviews. I didn’t like her at all, finding her dismissive of things I loved for what I thought were all the wrong reasons. I didn’t read anything else of hers for years, until I forced myself to read some of her long-form essays and found someone impassioned about film but incredibly idiosyncratic about it. I still find her difficult much of the time, but she can also be really insightful. The Siren gets at all this and much more. See also articles from Jim Emerson, Dennis Cozzalio, and Glenn Kenny.

It Ain’t the Meat (It’s the Motion): Thoughts
on movie technique and movie criticism
by Jim Emerson at scanners::blog

I almost included this essay among the Kael essays linked as “also sees” above, but it really deserves its own place. It starts off dealing with a bunch of quotes either from or about Kael regarding the question of technique and style – Kael resolutely refused to discuss technique on any technical level, arguing that the general public didn’t give a damn and privileging emotional impact over technique. Emerson distinguishes between “technical” and “technique”, showing how an understanding and explication of technique doesn’t necessarily have to be presented technically to readers, but also wrestling with the core of Kael’s populist stance.

Not Appearing in This Film: The Silent Movie Career of Carole Lombard – Sort Of by The Mythical Monkey

A fun piece submitted for a Carole Lombard blogathon in October (yeah, told you some of these were rather old), this one looks back on a part of Carole Lombard’s career that I frankly didn’t know existed. If you’d asked me, I would’ve said Lombard started in film in the early ’30s (I think 1932’s Supernatural is the earliest Lombard film I could name), but I would have been wrong. She actually started in film as early as 1921, when she was twelve. But she’s either invisible in most of these films, the films are lost, or they’re exceedingly lackluster. Still, the Mythical Monkey seeks out what he can, and brings forth a fascinating picture of a beautiful girl who never quite found her niche until screwball comedy came along with 1934’s Twentieth Century.

In Profile: The Life and Films of Bong Joon-ho by Jordan Winter at Anomalous Material

So far in my admittedly limited experience, Korean cinema is pretty fantastic (I think I’ve seen eleven or twelve Korean films and basically loved them all), and Bong Joon-ho is right at the center of it right now. He’s got the crowd-pleasing, genre-bending The Host, and the critical darling Memories of Murder, and a whole lot else. Jordan Winter runs through his whole filmography, finding patterns and connections among the films as well as charting a trajectory for his career, which I certainly hope is only beginning.

Pioneers of Animation: Winsor McKay by Brandie at True Classics

Winsor McCay is justly credited as one of the creators of animation, being one of the first cartoonists to move his drawings to the screen and figure out how to make them move – not only that, he was one of the first to give his animated creations personality and interaction. Brandie has written a great rundown of his career, both as cartoonist and animator (because the two were inextricably connected), and of his importance to early cinema and to animation as we know it today.

Sometimes, You Have to Come Back to The Tree of Life by Greg Ferrara at CinemaStyles

I loved The Tree of Life the minute I saw it, but not everyone did, and I respect that. Greg didn’t love it the first time he saw it, but he went back and watched it again, and this piece is a result of that second viewing. And it’s wonderful. Not only because he now agrees with my love of the film, but because it’s such a lovely piece about how to watch any film, how to let it get hold of you, and because it’s hard to admit complete changes of mind. It’s less of an “aha, got it” moment here, and more that the film just didn’t let him go, and his way of expressing that is perfect.

Sound and Vision: Charlie Chaplin and the Sound of Silence by Carly at the Kitty Packard Pictorial

Charlie Chaplin is well known for continuing to make silent films (well, two of them, at any rate) well into the sound era. But it’s maybe not quite as well known how important sound and music were to him, even in the silent era. He played and wrote music himself, and was one of the earliest people to provide theatres with fully-written score to be played alongside his silents. I knew he wrote scores for some of his films, but I had no idea how deep his appreciation and use of music went until reading this excellently researched and presented article.

Happy Birthday, Louise Brooks by The Mythical Monkey

I try not to include multiple articles from the same source, but this post has been so long in the making that people are oustripping my ability to do that without skipping over great posts. So I had to let a couple of people in here twice. I know virtually nothing about Louise Brooks other than that her hairstyle started a bob craze and that she was in two highly regarded G.W. Pabst films, Pandora’s Box and The Diary of a Lost Girl. Reading this article was a treat, but a sobering one, as Brooks’ life and career seemed constantly undermined by mismanagement and her own poor decisions, despite her obvious talent and appeal. By the end, I really wanted to order a do-over for her – and recommitted myself to seeing whatever films of hers I can find.

Diabolique by Chris at Silent Volume

Chris has been eschewing his usual silent cinema posting diet due to a Clouzot retrospective going on in Toronto, and all his reviews from that are worth reading, but I really liked this one because it both reminded me that I need to rewatch Diabolique and gave me a lot of things to think about that I hadn’t thought of before for when I do, especially in relation to its use of genre. Like, it’s usually billed as a thriller or sometimes a film noir, but I hadn’t really considered how close to horror territory it comes – I’m definitely going to look for way that it genre-bends next time I watch it.

The Great Citizen Kane Debate at True Classics

You can’t run around in film buff circles for five minutes before finding out that Citizen Kane is considered the finest film of all time by many, many people. You can’t run around in such circles for more than ten minutes before finding out that many other people think Citizen Kane is hopelessly overrated. The girls at True Classics take this debate to blogathon form, asking people to write pieces either for or against Kane as the greatest film of all time. I’ve seen the film five or six times and still don’t know which side I come down on, so I didn’t write anything for it, but the bloggers who did participate have some really good perspectives, definitely proving the debate is far from settled.

Czech New Wave series at Bonjour Tristesse

Bonjour Tristesse does a good many marathons to catch up on specific genres of film, and does a WAY better job than I do of actually following through on these marathons. Right now, the Czech New Wave is under scrutiny, at the rate of a few films per week. I’ve seen a few of these films myself, and it’s definitely a movement I like and want to see more of – I’m watching the progress here closely to help guide my own eventual viewing.

Godard Series: Pierrot le fou, etc. at Andy Buckle’s Film Emporium

Meanwhile, Andy Buckle has chosen Jean-Luc Godard, a filmmaker very close to my own heart, as his director of the month, and is going through at least all his major 1960s films. I’m not sure how far he intends to go, and really, there’s no reason I chose to link the Pierrot le fou review as opposed to any of the others, except that Pierrot le fou is one of my favorite Godard films and I think Andy wrote about it very well. Check his “Classic Throwback” category for more reviews – he’s going pretty much in chronological order.

Charlie Chaplin in One A.M.

The Cinefamily rep cinema has been doing a Chaplin series for the past couple of months (all the features and a bunch of silent shorts), and they capped it off last night with Modern Times – but first they played probably my all-time favorite Chaplin short, One A.M. Chaplin is closely associated with the Little Tramp character he played in pretty much all of his features from The Kid through The Great Dictator, but he also had another character in his shorts – a more dapper man-about-town wearing a suit that actually fit. That’s who he plays in One A.M., which is a one-character piece of Charlie, very drunk from a night out, trying to get into up to bed. It’s a fantastic exploration of how much physical comedy you can get out of essentially one person and two rooms. And it’s a lot.

Split up into two parts because of YouTube’s length limitations.