City Lights, Junebug, and five other movies

City Lights (1931)

It's a sin for a film aficionado to say this, but generally I'm not interested in silent movies. I've seen dozens of silents, but don't remember many, which tells you something. Anyway, they're a different art form entirely.

This one has a great reputation, but through decades of watching old movies in theaters I managed to miss it every time it played, and now that I'm watching movies streamed and downloaded, I've still put it off, but finally I clicked 'play'.

City Lights ("a comedy romance in pantomime, written and directed by Charles Chaplin") can't be the classic everyone says it is, can it?

Yeah, it's the classic everyone says it is.

It's comprised of a series of interconnected vignettes, mostly focused on a homeless, jobless bum called simply The Tramp. There's a Depression on, so there's also a drunken, suicidal businessman, and an impoverished blind woman selling flowers.

It's consistently funny and/or sweet, and each brief vignette ends before it gets repetitive or predictable (a notion frequently forgotten in modern comedies). In the very funny suicide scene, for example, after The Tramp and The Banker had both fallen into the bay twice, I briefly worried that if either of them fell into the drink a third time it would become tedious. Chaplin must've done the same math, because they came close to tumbling again, but there was no third splash.

It's a comedy, so the big question is, Is it funny? Yup. I did plenty of laughing out loud. There are even sound gags — lots of them, actually — precisely matching what's on the screen with the musical score, which was (of course) written by Chaplin.

City Lights is about lost souls in the big city, finding friendship and maybe love, and we have more lost souls than ever so it feels fresh even 91 years later.

There's often blatant racism in old movies, so I crossed my fingers when a black actor appeared in a small supporting role, but no worries — the character is written and portrayed sympathetically, rubbing Chaplain with a much-needed lucky rabbit's foot before a funny and cleverly staged prize fight.

Verdict: BIG YES. I should've watched this years ago.

The Neverending
Film Festival

♦ ♦ ♦

The Guilty (1947)

A couple of straight guys are sharing an apartment, and dating twin women. They're movie twins — one's slutty, the other's saintly, and they're played by the same actress. When one of the twins is murdered and all evidence points to the slimier of the two flatmates, the other dude wants to date the surviving twin.

This seems an untenable situation, but hey, it's a movie. Not a very good one, though — I guessed the ending twenty minutes into it, and you could probably guess it, too, just from what I've written.

Here's a twist, though — I guessed wrong. That still doesn't make it a very good movie, though.

Here's the problem with The Guilty: Several generations of us have been born and grown old and died since this movie was made, and the accouterments and the society and everything else has changed, but humans haven't. You'd still know a human if you met one, but the only human you'll meet in this movie is the dead woman's mother, crying and angry about her daughter's death. Everyone else is an actor delivering lines that don't seem right and doing things that aren't what a genuine human would do. You'd never mistake any of them for people.

Verdict: NO. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

I Stand Alone (1998)

The first third of this movie, I was lovin' it. Here's a middle-aged horsemeat butcher who's had a shitty life from the day he was born, at least according to the story he tells. He's an aging angry cynic, a quiet guy who never says much but offers oodles of inner-voice negative narration, and it's delightful how he despises the world and everyone in it.

Then he loses his temper, goes over the edge, gets violent, goes further and further over the edge, miles past the edge, until he's completely lost his sanity. So this is a horror movie, but not with the gentle goose bumps of Frankenstein or Freddy Kruger — no frights followed by giggles here.

Directed and written by Gaspar Noé, this movie wants you to wonder what morality really is, and to sympathize with the madman as he counts his bullets deciding which people to kill, as he argues with himself whether to kill his daughter or merely rape her, and as he rationalizes what he's done with a philosophy of right and wrong that adds up to "oh well."

To my recollection, there are only two scenes of violence in the movie, but it feels like an act of violence all the way through. It takes the audience so completely into a mentally ill man's mind, it left me mentally nauseous, especially since I'd so strongly identified with the main character, at first.

I watched the movie last night, and probably should mull it over for a few days before writing a review, but I don't want to mull it over. Don't want to think about it at all, so I'm just gonna post this, and then flush it out of my mind.

The movie is absolutely not shit. This is excellent filmmaking — smart, involving, thoughtful, and disturbing, anti-moral, and completely repulsive. It reminds me of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, two movies I respect but abhor, in which a brilliant filmmaker wastes great effort illuminating the life and times of someone despicable and not worth the bother.

More trivially, every scene ends with a thwomp, a sudden sound effect. There must be a hundred thwomps, and some are quite loud, others louder. It gets annoying, never stops, and it's a stylistic choice someone should've been talked out of.

Of course, I also wish someone had talked Noé out of the whole damned storyline, and told him to make something perhaps only 75% as hellish, which would still be more nightmare-inducing than any movie I'd want to endure.

Verdict: I Stand Alone defies my ordinary YES, NO, or MAYBE. It's a very well-made movie, but there's no way I'd recommend it. Ask yourself one question: Do you want to be inside a lunatic's head for an hour and a half?

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1941)

"Oh, what's to do? Are you going to give me gas or not?"

Inspector Hornleigh (Gordon Harker) thinks of himself as one of the best brains working at Scotland Yard, and he's writing a biography exaggerating his accomplishments. His literary fictions are interrupted when he's assigned to investigate a series of small-scale pilferings from military provisions. To crack the case, he must go undercover as the oldest conscript in the British Army, accompanied by his loyal sidekick from the police, Sgt Bingham (Alastair Sim).

Piecing together the evidence, I've determined that Inspector Hornleigh was featured in a popular radio show way back when, which spawned several movies in the 1930s and '40s. This one's a harmless police procedural with very slight comedic tendencies, but it doesn't make me want to see the other entries, or listen to the source material on Old Time Radio.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Junebug (2004)

A Chicago gallery owner (Embeth Davidtz) is trying to strike a deal with an as-yet undiscovered artist deep in the South. The artist is an awful man and, in my judgment, not much of an artist, so it's a relief that the movie isn't much about him.

Art-lady is married to a man from the South (though you'd never guess it, cuz he's gone all Chicago) and his family lives not too far from the dipshit artist, so when art-lady comes down to negotiate, they stay with his family.

That's the movie's focal point — Mom and Dad, husband's moody brother and his chipper pregnant wife, and the gallery owner and her husband, all bouncing around in the same house, and ho lee crap.

Everything and everyone in this family is very awkward, there's unspoken backstory for all of them, and some or most or all of them aren't particularly likable. Big questions are alluded to, never quite asked, and certainly never answered. In every way, it's exactly like a real family.

I've never seen a film that captures the concept of 'family' so well. It made me uncomfortable, and felt so damned real it's a surprise that the actors don't all have the same last name. This isn't a documentary, it just feels like one.

You'll be disappointed if you're expecting laughs, hugs, an explanation for the brother's grudge against the world, a heart-to-heart conversation, a happy ending, or any of that rot. Not here.

I loved it, but it's not for everyone, and for a while I thought Junebug wasn't for me. If you're briefly bored shitless like I was, rewind it for a few minutes — at absolutely any point — and notice the character detail, even when somebody's talking about something stupid or nobody's talking at all. It's so dang real I hated everyone in the family for at least a while, especially when any of them reminded me of me.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Marlowe (1969)

James Garner plays private eye Philip Marlowe, based on Raymond Chandler's novel The Little Sister, which I read years ago and don't recall at all. As often happens when these things aren't done right, the plot can't be followed and barely makes sense, because every character who knows anything is forever unwilling to tell the truth.

By far the best moments in this film belong to Bruce Lee. He's in only two scenes, making a remarkable entrance about halfway through the flick, and too soon a hell of an exit. I'm perplexed by the lack of billing, though — this was made several years after his breakthrough in The Green Hornet, yet his name isn't even in the opening credits, so seeing him was a surprise.

Anyway, Marlowe is mostly a mess, but Garner is believably tough, noble, smart and smartass. Garner was always likable, and a few years later he played essentially the same character on TV's The Rockford Files, but with more laughs, better scripts, and more believable mysteries than can be found here.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

San Francisco (1936)

"You're in probably the wickedest, most corrupt, most godless city in America."

Yeah, I'll vouch for that.

San Francisco, the movie, is a sorta silly melodrama about several well-heeled white people before, during, and after the great earthquake of 1906.

Clark Gable plays Blackie Norton, a decadent rascal with a decent heart, running an unsavory place in the city's Barbary Coast. His best buddy and sparring partner is Spencer Tracy, playing a priest for God's sake. And his new hire is an opera-style singer, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), who doesn't want to sing beer-hall style songs.

There's more opera singing than I wanted to hear, a stale talent show, and a tepid testosterone feud between Blackie and the owner of the opera house, all of which made me impatient — I'm ready for the ground to shake and buildings to topple, any time now — but it's undeniably charming all along the way.

Gable's Blackie is an atheist, and says it eloquently and often, while Tracy's pious priest is only a cliché in a collar, but the movie of course sides with Father Tracy and his religious message. MacDonald is very Christian too, and mostly an annoyance. There are half a dozen hymns, but ignore that drivel and wait for the quake and the mayhem and fire that follows, and the city's anthem, "San Francisco" (written for this film), and the movie's marvelous closing shot.

Goes without saying, having lived in Frisco, loved it there, and fallen in love there, I'm not an impartial critic. I'm still batty about the San Francisco that was, which isn't any more, and this movie is full of it.

Bar manager to troublesome customer: Say, where are you from?
Customer: Los Angeles.
Bar manager: I thought so. (decks him)

Verdict: YES.

— — —

Find a movie
DVDpublic librarystreaming
If you can't find it, drop me a note.

Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  


  1. I disagree with you on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. I love both. But I fully understand your perspective.

    If you have not seen Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible" - don't. With all my heart, just don't see it.

    1. I love most of Gaspar Noe's films. He pushes things beyond the breaking point and I guess something in me respects that, deeply. I also have a healthy sense of self (it's true, my therapist agrees!) and can easily separate fiction from things you should never do in reality. I recommended this film to Doug because its nihilism represents a viewpoint that most loners/introverts can understand. I also figured Doug for someone who can identify the lines you should never cross. Obviously, I was correct in one sense, but I'm sorry that it affected him, negatively. Based on his experience, I would never recommend another Gaspar Noe film and definitely not Irreversible. -- Sincerely LArden

    2. Ah, never be sorry for recommending a good movie, man. I am glad I saw it, no regrets. I'm just not tough enough to take it -- that's the only thing I regret.

    3. And now, of course, I am tempted to see Gaspar Noe's Irreversible. Will I be even more offended than I was by I Stand Alone?

    4. There is a very long rape scene at the beginning of the movie. I have not seen I Stand Alone. But it's bad.

    5. Well, one of my favorite movies, Ms 45, starts with two rapes. Whether it's worth watching depends on what the movie does afterwards, and I love what Ms 45 does.


🚨🚨 If you have problems posting a comment, please click here for help. 🚨🚨