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by Michael Barrett

15 Mar 2016


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.

by Michael Barrett

23 Feb 2016

Please Believe Me (1950)

Two made-on-demand discs from Warner Archive reveal odd moments from the career of director Norman Taurog, who resists most attempts to inhabit an auteur status. His long and prolific career, primarily in comedy and music, includes work with many stars such as W.C. Fields, Bing Crosby, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley. Taurog won an Academy Award for Best Director with Skippy (1931), one of several boy-oriented movies in his catalogue, and was nominated again for Boys Town (1938).

The closer we look, however, the more he seems to embody the consummate professional journeyman, whose career depended on the script and actors rather than any personal stamp. Unfortunately, with mediocre material, the results are mediocre, and not interesting, failures.

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