the wondrous Blu-ray products released this month by The Criterion Collection,
that Cadillac of labels, are a masterpiece from 1931 and an absolute gem from
2013—Charles Chaplin’s City Lights,
and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Both
packages come with Blu-ray and DVD discs, which apparently will be the norm for
Criterion releases from now on.
up—City Lights, arguably Chaplin’s
best and most enduring feature film. Made at a time when sound had already
taken over Hollywood, Chaplin insisted on shooting another silent picture.
Everyone thought he was mad. The moguls believed that even after only four
years of sound movies, audiences would not care to step backwards into the
silent era ever again. Chaplin proved them wrong. City Lights, even without spoken dialogue (but with a gorgeous
Chaplin score and sound effects) is sophisticated and intelligent,
hilarious and touching, and remarkably clever. Often regarded as one of the
best films ever made, Chaplin’s masterwork is the story of a tramp (duh) and
his love for a blind flower-girl, who mistakenly thinks Charlie is a rich man.
As our hero attempts to perpetuate this misconception, the results are
side-splitting funny—until Chaplin’s trademark pathos takes over and “there
isn’t a dry eye in the house.” It is said that Albert Einstein had tears
rolling down his cheeks at the premiere.
oh, boy, does the film look good on Blu-ray. The new digital restoration from a
4K film transfer is crisp, sharp, and blemish-free. Like Criterion’s earlier
release this year, Safety Last!, City Lights looks as if it were made
last week. There’s a new audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance,
as well as a host of extras. Many of these are repeated from the MK2 Warner
Brothers release from around ten years ago, such as the documentary Chaplin Today: City Lights, archival
footage from the production of the film, rehearsals, and clips of the director
with boxing stars at Chaplin Studios in 1918. A new feature, Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom by Design,
explores how Chaplin built his famous studio with a mind toward expressing his unique
ways of working. The usual outstanding booklet contains an essay by critic Gary
Giddins and a 1966 interview with Chaplin himself.
short, if you’ve never seen City Lights
or have any doubt that Charles Chaplin was the greatest film artist in the
industry’s first fifty years, then by all means pick up this set.
Noah Baumbach’s delightful Frances Ha originally
premiered at film festivals in 2012, but was released theatrically in 2013,
making it a contender for this year’s Academy Awards. I sincerely hope it’s not
overlooked. Baumbach is known for making quirky films (see The Squid and the Whale, for example), and Frances Ha is no different. However, unlike Baumbach’s earlier
mixtures of dark humor and tragedy, the new picture is definitely a comedy. At
its heart is Greta Gerwig’s performance as Frances, who also co-wrote the
screenplay with Baumbach. Frances is a well-meaning, life-is-mostly-wonderful
type of young woman who strives to be a choreographer but can’t seem to get the
opportunity to strut her stuff. Throughout the picture, she is a woman without
a home, crashing at various friends’ apartments in New York City, always
promising herself that she’ll “get her own place soon,” hopefully with her best
friend Sophie (played by Sting’s daughter Mickey Sumner), with whom Frances
shared a place at the story’s beginning. While the film is full of laughs and
smiles, there is an under-current of
loneliness that doesn’t really hit you until after the movie is over—despite
the genuine happy ending.
digitally in color and then converted into glorious black and white, New York
hasn’t looked so good since Woody Allen’s Manhattan.
Baumbach’s storytelling expertise is all in the characters and how the film is
edited, and in many ways, the picture resembles something Francois Truffaut
might have done in the early 60s. In fact, Baumbach utilizes famous French New
Wave movie music (by Georges Delerue and others) for much of the score. If ever
there was an homage to that important and creative movement in cinema history, Frances Ha is it.
include an interesting dialogue between Baumbach and director Peter
Bogdanovich; one gets the impression that the elder statesman might be
something of a mentor to the younger filmmaker. Also of note is the dialogue
between Greta Gerwig and filmmaker/actress Sarah Polley. A further conversation
about the look of the picture between Baumbach, DOP Sam Levy, and Pascal
Dangin, who did the film’s color mastering, is enlightening. The booklet
contains a perceptive essay by playwright Annie Baker.
you missed Frances Ha in the theaters
last spring, now’s your chance to catch up. It truly is a jewel.