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City Lights (1931)
City Lights shines
City Lights is something of a case that sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Released in 1931, four years after the advent of sound in film, Charlie Chaplin made the bold decision to keep his famous character, the Little Tramp, occupying a world silent but for music. The story of City Lights is far from a complex one; it concerns the Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl and also befriending a troubled millionaire, with ample amounts of visual and physical comedy thrown into the mix. But in many ways, the film's simplicity is central to its enduring appeal.
The film opens with the grand unveiling of a statue at a public ceremony, with the pomp of the preceding speeches sardonically represented by droning kazoo noises. The veil over the statue is lifted, revealing the Tramp sleeping upon it. Awakened by the public outrage at his conduct, he tries to climb down from the statue, but his baggy and hole-ridden trousers end up getting caught. Not only does this scene tell us everything we need to know about the Tramp and his social standing right away but, as with the rest of the comedy in this film, it goes on for just as long as it reasonably can. The Tramp's dismount from the statue is long ordeal involving snagging trousers, a badly timed rendition of the national anthem, and an accidental disrespect upon the statue's face. Once the audience has about seen it all, and just as the humour begins to wane, the film promptly moves onto the next scene. I think there is something to be admired about Chaplin's ability to play out a gag and get as much mileage from it as possible, especially without ever tiring the audience. I suspect few other filmmakers would depict a character eating a streamer they've mistaken for the pasta noodles on their plate for more than a couple seconds, let alone for the full minute or so that we see here.
It's probably none too shocking that the film is funny; at this point in Chaplin's career comedy was an older hat than that sitting atop the Tramp's head. What is surprising is its delicate and tender approach to the love story that it tells. Before seeing City Lights, I might have thought that a silent romance film was a terrible idea. It seems that most modern cinematic portrayals of romance are defined by grand and verbal declarations of love, about love meaning never having to say you're sorry or never letting go. But here the relationship between the Tramp and the Flower Girl is so wonderfully sweet in its straightforwardness. In reality, there are so many nuances to human speech and communication that complicate matters; being able to put feelings into the correct words, misunderstandings in phrasing or tone, or just the overall capacity to lie and deceive that all cast in question whether a person really means what they say. However, none of this applies in a silent film. The Tramp loves the Flower Girl for her blind lack of derisive judgement on himself and his social status; she, in turn, loves him for the apparent generosity and kindness that she inspires in him. The motivations in this romance are clear, and its presented almost exclusively through expressions and gestures that can't be taken as anything less than sincere. Without the complicated burden of dialogue, this love story becomes more easily believable.
Take, for example, a scene near the end of the film where the Tramp presents to the Flower Girl a large sum of money that he has gone through considerable trouble to acquire. The Tramp slyly stashes away some of the money for himself, unbeknownst to her, but gifts the rest to the Flower Girl for her to pay her rent and receive a blindness curing surgery. The Flower Girl is overjoyed, and kisses the Tramp in gratitude; the Tramp, visibly flattered, subtly gives the Flower Girl the small amount of money he had kept for himself. These few gestures say so much about the care that exists between the two characters, and wordlessly demonstrates the levels of selflessness that she brings out in him. Nothing needs to be said out loud about her making him want to be a better person. The audience simply sees it and believes it.
City Lights also has the wherewithal to keep the romantic heart of the story in clear view, even amidst its scenes of comedy, such as when the Tramp enters into a boxing match in an attempt to earn the money needed for the Flower Girl's rent. Despite being badly outmatched and obviously daunted, the Tramp doesn't run away and gives his all in trying to win. Then, while in a beaten daze and being tended to between rounds, he imagines one of the men in his corner as being the Flower Girl. This is a great reminder to the audience of what exactly the Tramp is fighting for, as well as a set up to a great gag wherein the Tramp lovingly kisses this man's hand, much to the latter's disgust. Further, the character of the Millionaire works well in this regard. When we are first introduced to him, he is in a drunken and suicidal state, distressed over his wife having left him. It's an eloquent way of reminding us just how universal matters of the heart are - rich or poor, we all want to be loved.
Charlie Chapin did quite a bit of work behind the camera on this picture - directing, producing, writing, editing, and composing the music for it - but his work in front of the camera is arguably the most commendable of all. It might go without saying that he pulls off physical comedy amazingly well. Whether he's slipping on a dance floor as if it's covered in ice or being suddenly pulled off a dock and into the water like a spectacular ragdoll, Chaplin plays it all like a living cartoon and really makes the most of the visual medium. Beyond that, there is an incredible poignancy to his performance here as well. Chaplin's acting during the final scene, where the Tramp's face runs through an entire array of emotions upon realizing that the once blind Flower Girl can now see him, is magnificent and incredibly touching.
The music of the film deserves some mention too. Much like another romance film I'm quite fond of, Punch-Drunk Love, the soundtrack of City Lights uses contrast very effectively. The music in most scenes is quite loud, frenetic, and occasionally chaotic, such as in the boxing scene, but whenever the Tramp and the Flower Girl are on screen together the soundtrack melts into a soft and sweet medley. I feel this imparts a relative sense of calm, similar to the emotional calm that his love for the Flower Girl provides the Tramp in his otherwise turbulent life.
Ultimately, I believe the lasting appeal of City Lights is in the message it provides. The final scene of the film doesn't specifically tell the audience what finally becomes of the Tramp and the now sighted Flower Girl. What the film does tell us though is that she can finally see him and, after a moment's hesitation, smiles, seeming to accept him for who he is. And the Tramp, knowing that she can finally see, slowly breaks into a smile of joy. For him it's enough to know that he's managed to help the woman that he loves, and the emotional profundity of this sticks with the audience long after the film is over. There's something so wonderfully heartening in the idea that even the oddest and most socially outcast of people are able to love and be loved.
The Belko Experiment (2016)
An Experiment in Name Recognition
Eighty white-collar workers find themselves sealed inside their office building and are instructed via the public address system to murder each other.
You might think this sort of outlandish premise would lend itself well to some dark satire or perhaps a morbid horror B-movie appeal. The Belko Experiment proves such assumptions wrong. Directed by Greg McLean, the film comes from a screenplay by James Gunn (Slither, Super, Guardians of the Galaxy) that seems surprisingly unrefined. The story doesn't extend much beyond what I've already described -- there are people in an office, a voice tells them to kill each other, they hesitate, heads begin to explode (literally), people kill each other.
The backgrounds and motivations of the characters aren't really provided and everyone can be described as a simple archetype. There's the stoner, the gay, the creep, the nerd, the new girl, and so on. John Gallagher Jr. is our protagonist, depicted as a "nice guy" who deplores violence and is pitted against Tony Goldwyn's "hardass boss" antagonist who is imploring violence. Gunn regular Michael Rooker is also present, playing a maintenance worker whose only role in the film is to fruitlessly attempt to cut a hole in the metal plating trapping everyone inside. The acting is competent but ultimately all for naught as the colourful characterizations of Gunn's other films are all but absent here.
From a visual standpoint, the film isn't terribly interesting either. When we're not looking at a static wide shot or generally shaky action, we get plenty of extreme closeups of somebody's emotionally vacant face, which only conveys that they are as dumbfounded as the audience feels. The special effects being used to present the bloody carnage is effective enough, even sickeningly so, but it's hard to imagine it being anything but off-putting to most viewers. Gore hounds aren't going to find anything satisfyingly shocking here and most other viewers will probably be disturbed by the film's callous depiction of death. Exploding heads notwithstanding, the film's effects are shoddy; the exterior shots of the plated-up office building are laughable, looking dated by about 25 years.
What is perhaps the only visually and conceptually satisfying moment comes near the end, wherein one character bludgeons his boss to death with a tape dispenser in a scene cleverly lit by an abandoned PowerPoint presentation. Sadly, this is essentially the only time where the office setting and characters are at all relevant to the on-screen action. I would have thought that a violent battle royale set in an office would be fought with staplers, pencils and paper guillotines, but apparently the filmmakers didn't want to exercise that level of visual creativity. Perplexingly, most of the fighting is done instead with a convenient supply of guns.
The conclusion of the story is about as interesting as everything preceding it. It turns out that the Belko company was behind the entire incident. The characters in the film seem reluctant to accept this possibility. "What if the only reason that we've been here all along is because of this? I dunno, some kind of human experiment..."one ponders. "Impossible!" replies the other. Perhaps the audience too could have been surprised by this outcome if it weren't already given away by the title. What exactly the company is seeking to prove with this elaborate and expensive experiment eludes me. Locking people in a building together and forcing them to kill each other or else they'll be killed anyway ... the eventual result seems like a no-brainer.
I suspect the film's script is a first draft, forgotten about until recently and now produced solely to put Gunn's name on the poster and piggyback off the successes of his recent blockbusters. The only other possible purpose of The Belko Experiment is to test the audience's patience.