Armchair Cinephile 

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Comic genius then and now

Fans of some of cinema's earliest treasures haven't always fared well with the DVD revolution; many silent classics, if they come out at all, have been rushed out in haphazard editions of questionable quality and sometimes dubious legality.

But now and then, a studio behaves like the only reason it was put on earth is to shower those same folks with gifts. Warner Bros.' Chaplin Collection is one of those times. The second half of Warner's series hits stores this month, and it's a treasure. Between them, Volumes One and Two contain practically all of Chaplin's work as a feature-length filmmaker. His work on shorts in the 1910's is available elsewhere on disc, but beginning with 1921's The Kid this collection is the place to go.

There is so much to praise about the series I don't know where to start. Physically, the packaging and menu screens adhere to a classy minimalism. No garish animated splash screens are to be found, and if you walk into the video store to purchase the titles individually, you'll know exactly what you're getting: Most DVD packages hyperbolize their bonus features, but these list individual running times and descriptions - four minutes of newsreel footage here, three minutes of rehearsals there, a half-hour short film starring Chaplin's contemporaries somewhere else. The programmers had free access to the Chaplin family archives, and it shows in the wealth of material here.

That access also shows in the transfers themselves, which are taken from remarkably good film materials and cleaned up beautifully. At times, it's difficult to believe you're looking at something that was photographed 80 years ago.

The films in the box are available individually, so novices curious about well-established masterpieces like The Kid and City Lights can pick them up without also buying more obscure titles like A King in New York. The collection does contain something you can't get elsewhere, though: Charlie, a loving doc by Time critic Richard Schickel, which has been well-received on the festival circuit recently. Not since the '20s has it been so easy to be swept away by one of comedy's most influential artists.

But on the other end of the century from Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, comedy became a team sport, with TV sketch shows doing much of the groundbreaking. One of the most entertaining of the post-Python teams to emerge is featured on The Kids in the Hall: Complete Season 1, which kind of snuck out on DVD recently without a lot of fanfare, despite being in great demand. In addition to the obvious, this set features quite a bit of material from the group's "pilot" special and a number of sketches shot in the Rivoli Theater, a music venue where they got their start doing shows without sets, props, or much in the way of costumes.

The Chaplin Collection, Vol. 2
(Warner Bros / MK2)

The Kids in the Hall: Complete Season 1

Intolerable Cruelty,
Lost in Translation


Daddy & Them

Pieces of April
Armchair Cinephile



Despite the fact that it was ignored by the Academy, the box office, and many critics, the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty was one of the better comedies of last year, thanks largely to a brilliant Cary Grant turn by George Clooney. (And to a dead-on cameo from Billy Bob Thornton, who also brightened up Love Actually and can be seen on DVD shelves in his more-or-less straight-to-video follow-up to All the Pretty Horses, Daddy & Them.) On the DVD, the Coens put their spin on the old deleted-scenes routine, splicing together literally dozens of readings of the same line for one sequence, then playing identical stock footage of trains over and over in another; it's as if they're mocking anyone who needs more than they delivered in the feature, and after the way America snubbed the movie I don't blame them.

Another under-seen 2003 comedy, Pieces of April, might fare better in video stores with eye-shadowed cutiepie Katie Holmes featured prominently on the cover. In print ads, the movie looked almost like a mopefest, but it's actually a really funny look at a family on the verge of disaster. Patricia Clarkson deserved her Oscar nomination for The Station Agent more than for April, but why quibble - especially when this film winds up to a finale that's as surprisingly touching as anything in the other one.

Finally, speaking of "surprisingly touching," Lost in Translation was one of the most welcome arrivals in weeks - and not just because the DVD's freeze-frame capability can make the opening shot last a lifetime. The ugliest thing in this year's Oscar event was Billy Crystal drawing attention to Bill Murray after he lost the Best Actor award to Sean Penn, and this disc holds the proof that whether you're talking romance, drama, or comedy, Crystal can't hold a candle to Murray. •

More by John DeFore



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