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by Michael Barrett

16 Mar 2016


As more silent films are restored to dazzling clarity through the wonders of digital technology, more people are watching them today than at any time since the talkies came in. They’re realizing two things: 1. Silent movies are a great art form unto themselves that envelop you in their spell, and 2. they give us a valuable window into their historical moment.

In other words, they may be “dated”, but not in a bad way. They are poignant time capsules of attitudes, hopes, fears and dreams from an era of not so long ago. These five films, now on Blu-ray, reveal details about life in America, Germany and France between one colossal war and another. Oh yeah, they’re also funny, exciting and entertaining.

The Kid (1921)

What: The Tramp (Charles Chaplin) discovers an abandoned baby boy and raises him for five years without legal authority. They engage in dubious shenanigans, include window-breaking and streetfighting, until the tyke (Jackie Coogan) is wrested away by authorities for an orphanage amid much crying and struggling. Will the long-lost mother (Edna Purviance) rediscover her child? Along the way, the Tramp has a fanciful dream of an angel-winged heaven going sour. Running less than an hour, this masterpiece still works seamlessly and fires on all emotional cylinders.

Wherefore: Chaplin produced, directed, wrote and starred in this film and later wrote music for what wasn’t only his first feature but the longest feature starring a clown from slapstick shorts. As the saying goes, they thought it couldn’t be done. Its tremendous success cemented his reputation as the most beloved star in the world and proved a formula of mixing laughs with shameless tear-stained sentiment.

This 4K digital restoration, completed in 2015, looks eye-poppingly sharp. It’s Chaplin’s 1972 re-release, which drops three scenes (included as a bonus) and adds his score. This Criterion edition adds commentary, interviews, a home-made short with Chaplin and Coogan, and an insightful demonstration of the art of undercranking.

by Michael Barrett

15 Mar 2016


Taxi

I’ve just watched two new masterpieces, one after the other, that pretty much define the possibilities of cinematic form in the 21st century. So does a third formal experiment, albeit less interestingly.

In Taxi (2015), which carries no credits because of its status as a clandestinely made film, Jafar Panahi plays himself driving a taxi around Tehran with a tiny digital dashboard camera. The 80-minute film or video takes place in “real time” (which took 15 days to shoot) and follows his interactions with various people who represent aspects of contemporary society, including two older superstitious women, a wounded man and his wife, a DVD bootlegger, a woman who’s a well-known human rights lawyer, and Panahi’s precocious niece, who’s shooting her own video for school. Every character is both natural and mysterious, arousing our interest. There are nods throughout to Panahi’s previous films.

by Michael Barrett

14 Mar 2016


Jane B. for Agnes V. (1988)

In 1987, Agnès Varda and Jane Birkin decided to make a film together, and before long they’d interrupted one film to make another. Released at the same time in France, Jane B. par Agnès V and Kung-Fu Master! had no real exposure in the US until this year, when Cinelicious released them with lush, digitally restored color (supervised by Varda) and put them together in a Blu-ray package.

Varda is one of the most personal and restlessly creative filmmakers to emerge from the French New Wave, while Birkin is known primarily as an English actress-singer-model, and for three high-profile romances. (Actress Charlotte Gainsbourg is Birkin’s daughter by French pop icon Serge Gainsbourg.) The two films Varda made with Birkin are personal family affairs for both, since we see several of Birkin’s relatives (children, brother, parents) as well as Varda’s son.

by Alex Ramon

7 Mar 2016


Anna (Per Amor Vostro)

Now in its sixth year, the five-day “Cinema Made in Italy” showcase takes place at its usual venue of Institut Français’s Ciné Lumière in South Kensington between 10 – 14 March. Given the sorry state of UK distribution of European cinema these days, the great value of this season is that it gives Londoners the chance to catch up with new Italian films which are highly unlikely to see the light of day here otherwise.

With many high-profile Italian filmmakers recently turning their attentions to starry, large-scale English language projects (Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales and Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth spring to mind), the season also offers a heartening reminder of the work that’s still being done in their native country and language by directors who are continuing to engage with Italy’s contemporary culture and its history in diverse and entertaining ways.

Last year’s showcase included comedies (Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s La Mafia uccide solo d’Estate), queer coming-of-age stories (Sebastiano Riso’s Più Buio di Mezzanotte), and, best of all, Ermanno Olmi’s haunting WWI miniature Torneranno I prati. This year, the Festival is comprised of nine titles, seven selected by critic/programmer Giorgio Gosetti and two by Film London CEO Adrian Wootton, and it again encompasses a diverse range of work, mixing auteur cinema by veterans with debut films and recent box office hits.  (However, the absence of any work by female filmmakers should be noted—and addressed—next year.)

by Michael Barrett

4 Mar 2016


Deep in My Heart is a musical biopic and song revue devoted to operettist Sigmund Romberg, played by Jose Ferrer. If that sounds dull, as it so easily could be, let me assure you this picture from director Stanley Donen is just about as good as anything he has ever made, and I say that advisedly.

In often elegant long takes, Donen presents one lushly produced number after another with a galaxy of stars. Most of the songs are performed by buxom opera star Helen Traubel as a friend and cafe owner, including the rousing “Stout Hearted Men” (best known in Nelson Eddy’s rendition) and an obscure yet joyous ragtime piece called “Leg of Mutton”.

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