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Archive for the ‘Sam on Movies’ Category

The Ten Best Films of 2012

by Sam Juliano

Including the Tribeca Film Festival, where Lucille and I watched 38 films in 10 days, and several revival venues at the Film Forum and elsewhere, we watched just under 300 films in theaters for 2013.  This represented a modest increase over the previous year, though there was a comparable decrease in the number of operas, plays and musical events that were negotiated in 2012.  Still we were sufficiently busy on all fronts, and experienced the most extensive year of travel in our lives.  How good a year in film was 2013?  All things considered, I’d say it was definitely above average and pretty much on par with the previous year.  If I had to impart some specific observations, I’d conclude that 2013 was weaker than most years in the overall quality and incidence of foreign-language cinema.  Moreover, multiplex fare was especially trite, and there was a marked dearth of memorable animated features.  On the other hand the Tribeca Film Festival was the strongest on record, with more features than ever before getting theatrical release just weeks or months later.  My rules for inclusion are consistent with the manner I have presented year-end lists dating back for decades: if the film opened theatrically on USA screens during the year in consideration it is eligible.  I have added to this qualification pool the Tribeca Film festival in its entirety, especially since most of the best films shown there have been gaining US release just a short time afterward.  The only film on either of my two lists (the main and honorable mention) to make it without an official opening is the Tribeca documentary Kiss the Water.  This exceptional work ran four times during the festival and the publicity for the film includes a most flattering quote from yours truly and WitD:

http://kiss-the-water.tumblr.com/page/3

In keeping with long held tradition my ten-best list includes a tenth-place two-way tie.  Hence there are eleven films for the ten spots.  Methinks that’s a modest alteration, especially when one considers the difficulty in finalizing a short list from such a plethora of choices.  While in the past my honorable mention list has more than tripled the total in my “Top Ten” this year I have limited it to twenty-six (26) choices, which basically are the films that challenged for the premium list.  Sure I had generally positive feelings for other films like Renoir, Saving Mr. Banks, Frozen, Dallas Buyers Club among others but I felt they fell behind the titles that were invariably more memorable for me during this calender year.  I have dispensed with the inclusions of best performances, directors and the various crafts, as I felt such discussions would be more appropriate for the usual Oscar report (s) of later this month.  I never had any use for “worst of” lists as I found them snooty in spirit and counter-productive, but have included what I see as a much more polite of expressing disparity: “A Dozen Films Others Like But I Never Did.” (more…)

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Screen cap from 1996′s ‘Beautiful Thing,’ a British gay love story

Capture from 1934 Jean Vigo masterpiece ‘L’Atalante’

by Sam Juliano

I have been getting many e mails about the latest venture at WitD, and I must say I am exceedingly delighted with the passionate response from site regulars and readers.  I put together my own list of ‘suggestions’ and Allan Fish followed suit with a fabulous proposal of titles that voters may want to consider.  Though I intend to sent the titles to the e mail chain, I wanted to post them at WitD early so that those itching to begin the process with have some formidable titles to consider.  Naturally, as is the case with past pollings, everyone will be free to vote for titles that are not on the list proposals.  Remember that this scroll of titles is only to held assist everyone’s memory.  I am sure many votes will be cast for films not mentioned, and that is indeed the way it should be.  In any event here are some proposals:

Way Down East 1920, D.W.Griffith
The Wedding March 1928, Erich Von Stroheim
City Girl 1929, F.W.Murnau
Flesh and the Devil 1926, Clarence Brown
Lonesome 1928, Pal Fejos
Waterloo Bridge 1931, James Whale
Liebelei 1932, Max Ophuls
L’Atalante 1934, Jean Vigo
Zoo in Budapest 1933, Rowland V.Lee
Peter Ibbetson 1935, Henry Hathaway
Mayerling 1936, Anatole Litvak
Gone With the Wind 1939, Victor Fleming
Love Affair 1939, Leo McCarey
The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums 1939, Kenji Mizoguchi
The Shop Around the Corner 1940, Ernst Lubitsch
Brief Encounter 1945, David Lean
Les Enfants du Paradis 1945, Marcel Carné

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by Sam Juliano

The enthusiastically greeted Greatest Romantic Films of All-Time countdown is now set to commence in April of 2014, sometime around mid-month.  The four months until that launching will be the time to view and re-view films in that genre, and to ponder the selections.  Each voter (e mails will be send to the same group who participated in the just-completed western countdown as well as a few new members who will surely want to be involved with this one) will again be asked to submit a numerical list (1 to 60) of what they favor as the greatest (translated: favorite) romantic films in cinema history.  The definition of what a romantic film is will be left up to the individual voter, but there will understandably be some overlaps from the previous comedy and especially musical countdowns.  But I figure that overlap to be very modest.  Ballots will not be accepted until January 15th, but then will be accumulated all the way up until April 1st.  Once again Voting Tabulator Extraordinaire Angelo A. D’Arminio Jr. will be negotiating the results.  Because the scope of this genre is a wide one, we will be going with a Top 70, as we did with 2011′s spectacularly successful musical countdown.  I will be sending out extensive lists to the voters, but everyone is free to choose whatever films they feel qualify.  The list is just to help gather your memories.  I will soon be in touch with the e mail chain.  To be sure there are many non-American films in this equation–France, Italy, Great Britain, Japan, Hong Kong and numerous other countries have promising entries…..

One firm rule: No writer who previously took on one of the films that will place in the Romantic countdown in one of the previous countdowns can again do the same film.  For example: I did The Sound of Music for the musical countdown.  Should that film make it in again, someone else must handle the essay.

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by Sam Juliano

The following is the full content of a term paper handed in to a Professor Renaldo Ovest Spaghetti for a graduate course in Italian Cinema offered during the fall semester of 2007 at Montclair State University.  Spaghetti asked all the students in his class to adhere to a rigid scholarship and demanded a formal presentation.  He specifically asked that there be a minimum of five major references, all of which of course must be documented at the conclusion of the paper.  He strongly encouraged quotes and passages.  The veteran educator also made it clear that he was less interested in the gossipy aspects of Leone and his work with his actors and craftsmen, than he was with a probing analysis of the work, its themes and focus and the specifics as to why it has been held in such high regard since the time it was released 45 years ago.  Spaghetti also made it clear that anyone hell bent on denigrating the film, or even slighting it in direct comparison to its celebrated American contemporaries, would risk a lower grade.  The esteemed Professor asked that the word count for all papers fall between 4000 and 4300 words.  He also made it clear that the paper would be weighted to represent 50% of the final grade.  Class participation and a final exam would constitute the remainder of the criteria.

There are a good many of us who cannot get enough of Sergio Leone’s epic Western ‘Once Upon A Time in the West.  We play the highly choreographed showpiece sequences in the film over and over again as though they were favorite musical recordings.  We memorize the film’s concise, aphoristic dialogue.  And we find that the film stands up quite well to repeated viewings because, with its solemn, majestic gestures and allusive script, it never quite yields its full meaning.                              -John Fawell

There is indeed a sense of mystery ingrained in the visuals of one of cinema’s crowning glories, a film that has both grown in stature, and has repeatedly attracted the full range of hyperbolic overload from the critical establishment and the audiences who embrace the genres of the western and the epic.  Once Upon A Time in the West has furthermore maintained cross-over appeal to those who normally resist the western and its constricted trappings, and has long perceived the category as one with substantial limitations.  Yet the film, says Robert Cumbow in his seminal study The Films of Sergio Leone is more about the “country” than it is about the “west.”  As such we can confidently conclude that as a result of its employment of cinematic poetry and expressiveness it represents Leone’s most personal vision, and the film above all others in his canon that bears his personal stamp: it is rooted in the conventions of western melodrama and includes the implacable black-clad villain, the struggling landowner being menaced by the businessman out to gain for a lark, but yet defended to the death by the strong and silent type.  In addition, the oldest revenge motive in the genre – “You killed my brother” is amplified in an epic that within the genre parameters can safely be posed as all-encompassing. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Anthony Mann passed away before he could realize his long-intended western based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, but a persuasive argument could still be made that both Man of the West and The Man from Laramie have in large measure fulfilled that desire.  Mann’s acknowledged background in Greek and Shakespearean drama no doubt helped the director in fashioning some acute and telling character parallels, while never losing sight of the political turbulence that dogged Hollywood in the 1950′s.  The Cold War era and the McCarthy witch hunts breaded insecurity, paranoia and madness, and these aspects were ingrained in the compromised heroes of several Mann westerns, especially The Man from Laramie.  The final of five fruitful collaborations between Mann and acting icon James Stewart, the film was shot in Cinemascope, which allowed for a greater complexity of composition, and the opportunity to effectively visualize the duality between hero and villain, and how to express more visual depth.   Mann had used this kind of framing in the academy ratio in films such as Bend in the River, but the rectangular framing made the close-ups more dynamic and the landscape within the frame more turbulent. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

A mountain man’s a lonely man 
And he leaves a life behind 
It ought to have been different, but oftimes you will find, 
That the story doesn’t always go that way you had in mind. 
Jeremiah’s story was that kind. . . 
Jeremiah’s story was that kind. 

An extraordinarily diverse and eclectic New York cultural maven opined in 1932 that “the strong silent man is the heir of the American pioneer, the brother of Daniel Boone whom James Fenimore Cooper immortalized as the American type for Europe.  In what was truly to be a redefinition of this quiet but resilient recluse, the mountain man Jeremiah Johnson is given some directions - “Ride due west as the sun sets and turn left at the Rocky Mountains and then proceeds to embark upon a lifetime journey that takes him to a place of beauty and terror, a land ruled by a savage ethic and populated in large measure by those no longer invested in the land of the living.  Jeremiah is the title character and central focus of Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson, a 1972 western starring Robert Redford at the peak of his appeal, a film that’s narratively straightforward but is underscored by a mythic ethos and a pulsating spirituality.

Jeremiah Johnson is one of the most compelling documents on film that purports to examine the ferocious, yet entrancingly beautiful outer reaches of American civilization –  a wilderness where peril and uncertainty lurk at every turn.  As captured by cinematographer Duke Callaghan the mountains evince a visual duality – bathed in golden sunshine, yet at other times capped by milky white snow that serves as a kind of ominous portal that beckons less precautionary adventures to their demise.  The specter of the mountains also serves as a challenge for even the most rugged of men, reminding them that there is no way to defeat them.  One must co-exist and rely on favorable timing and sheer good luck.  The film is one of three westerns that makes powerful use of it’s snowy terrain (the others are Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Andre de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw)   Yet, Jeremiah Johnson is the only one of the three where the raw and unforgiving terrain serves as the backdrop for what ultimately plays out as a meditative solo odyssey focused on a search for the meaning of life, one played out as a kind of re-creation of how the mountain man lives within the thematic parameters of man vs. nature a la Jack London.   Conservationist actor Redford had relocated to Utah in the late 60′s and he purchased a ski resort in Provo Canyon.  Located within a stone’s throw of a national forest and the Rockies, the region showcased natural beauty that at the end of the day was a godsend for Pollack and Callaghan, who set up camp with the cast and crew for the coming winter shooting schedule. (more…)

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Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen in Thomas Vinterberg’s wrenching Danish drama “The Hunt.”

by Sam Juliano

In The Hunt the devastation wrought on an innocent man and his rural Danish community reaches tragic proportions after an innocuous comment leads authorities on a witch hunt.  Family relationships are severely strained, loyalty succumbs to mistrust and banishment, and simmering resentment morphs into guilt by association and finally, violence.  Acclaimed Danish director Thomas Vinterberg returns to the central focus of his exceptional 1998 film Festen, though it examines a different aspect of sex abuse issue that was broached almost immediately in the earlier work.  In the appropriately-titled new filmthe thrust is less concerned with denial, than it is with how easily a community is willing to believe an unsubstantiated allegation without any semblance of fair play.   The film is certainly a cautionary tale aimed at those who embrace rumors and baseless charges, but even more resonantly it’s a harrowing drama that is powerfully engrossing, all the time boiling your blood over the shocking injustice it showcases.

A mild-mannered, popular teacher, Lucas, trying to make ends meet after a divorce takes a position in a kindergarten day school.  An imaginative young girl feels jilted after Lucas smartly gives back her plastic heart and politely rebuffs her kiss.  Spurred on by a pornographic image seen on her brother’s iPad, she tells the principal that Lucas is “stupid” and he has a penis that “sticks out.”  The woman then uses some persuasive wordplay to turn that declaration into a accusation of indecent exposure.  The school psychologist then leads on Klara further with loaded questions that fully support the baseless allegation.  The entire community takes to believing the girl under the bizarre notion that all children tell the truth, and a horrific series of events spiral bringing terrible retribution to the formerly well-liked and popular father of a teen age son. (more…)

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1776 2

by Sam Juliano

Note:  This review, first published at WitD on July 5, 2009 is re-printed today to honor and acknowledge tomorrow’s 4th of July holiday stateside.

Back in 1972, upon the release of the film version of 1776 Vincent Canby put things in their proper perspective when he opined: “The music is resolutely unmemorable.  The lyrics sound as if they’d been written by someone high on root beer, and the book is familiar history, compressed here, stretched there – that has been gagged up and paced to Broadway’s not inspiring standards.  Yet Peter H. Hunt’s screen version of 1776, a musical play I somehow didn’t see during its three-year Broadway run, insists on being so entertaining and, at times, even moving, that you might as well stop resisting it.  This reaction, I suspect, represents a clear triumph of emotional associations over material.”  Others, like Rex Reed were not so hospitable, likening the film and the show it was based on as “a history lesson for the mentally retarded.”  The roll-out for the movie was most extravagant as it premiered at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall near the very end of that cultural landmark’s status as a movie house, before its advent as an exclusive concert venue.  (As a 17 year-old I saw the film during its run here, and vividly remember being assaulted by a Bob Dylan-The Kinks-John Lennon loving friend who accompanied me to the screening with a few others, and who vociferously objected to some of the film’s cornball song lyrics, telling me at the end of the film: “You’re dead Juliano!). (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

“When a man shuts himself off from his neighbors, when he conducts experiments behind locked doors, there is bound to be talk.  There were those who whispered that Dirk Van Prinn was a sorcerer – and worse.  He might never have been remembered at all had not his research led him to the discovery of a most unusual formula for making glass.”    -Boris Karloff

Robert Bloch’s short story “The Cheaters” made it’s first appearance in the November 1947 issue of Weird Tales.  Bloch, who also authored the sources that yielded two other exceptional episodes in Boris Karloff’s Thriller, (“The Weird Tailor” and “Waxworks”) and seven other teleplays for the series, also included it in his acclaimed 1960 short story collection Pleasant Dreams: Nightmares, which won the Hugo Award for the selection “The Hell-Bound Train,” a captivating tale about outsmarting the devil.  “The Cheaters” which debuted on Thriller’s fifteenth week, is one of the most perfectly executed episodes of the series, showcasing an extraordinary ensemble, a clever specification of a popular science-fiction deceit and  a remarkable economic teleplay that unifies four short stories with a pre-title vignette.  “The Cheaters” with it’s focus on human greed and the murderous treachery that people will engineer to acquire money is one of the darkest episodes on the show, one where nearly all, the central characters meet their doom by violence or horrific means.  The play on the term ‘cheaters’ extends to virtually all the activities in the omnibus narrative: a wife cheats on her husband, a player cheats in a card game, characters cheat to gain wealth, and the glasses themselves as invented are devices to cheat since they reveal something that should not be observed by another person. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Note: This is the first in a new series that will be focusing on individual episodes of classic American anthology television series of the late 50′s through the early 70′s.  The following shows will be well-represented: ‘Boris Karloff’s Thriller,’ the original Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.  Gary Gerani’s seminal volume ‘Fantastic Television’ covered the anthology concept as well, though I will stay clear of sitcoms, and will basically examine the half-dozen or so shows that I have identified above.

The 67 episodes of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, a one-hour horror anthology that ran on network television from 1960-62, were later syndicated and for a number of years were a staple on the popular Sci-fi Channel.  E bay subsequently supported the bootleg sales of various sets that included some of the better know episodes, and in the late 90′s Universal released six shows to VHS and laserdisc, with the LD quality so layered and luminous that some to this day argue it is still incomparable.  While Universal moved forward at a snail’s pace releasing individual seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents throughout the first decade of the new millennium, they steadfastly stayed clear of bringing Thriller to DVD, in large measure because the sales on VHS and LD were reportedly very poor.  But Universal has long been tagged with a reputation of indifference when it comes to their classic television holdings, and they opted to lease the series to Image Entertainment, who released all the episodes with generous extras in an August, 2010 box set that can now be had inexpensively.  Image followed up the comprehensive box two years later with a single disc Thriller: Fan Favorites, which offered up ten of the very best episodes of the series on a single disc aimed at tempting neophytes with the larger purchase. (more…)

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