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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 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”.

by Michael Barrett

1 Mar 2016


The Phantom of Paris (1931)

There has been much myth, legend and speculation about why John Gilbert, one of the silent screen’s greatest stars, stumbled so badly in the talkies. Some claim that his voice didn’t record well, or even that MGM’s Louis B. Mayer deliberately sabotaged his career, never mind how much money was invested in him. In fact, Gilbert still had a solid hit when he teamed with Greta Garbo for Queen Christina. Ephraim Katz opines in The Film Encyclopedia that Gilbert’s persona and the melodramas in which he shined were out of step with the era, and he wasn’t a good enough actor to carry off the new material.

Now that his talkies are becoming available on demand from Warner Archive, we can judge for ourselves. The plots aren’t great, but they’re not unusual for melodramas of the period. The directors are also good, though they can only do so much with these talky stories. For example, director John S. Robertson’s great achievements, such as John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, also belong to the silent era, but he hasn’t forgotten how to point a camera in the highly fanciful The Phantom of Paris, an almost gloriously far-fetched bit of flummery based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, who’s most famous for a different phantom, of the operatic variety.

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