Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in the harrowing Canadian-Irish production “Room.”


Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne in surprisingly effective “The Danish Girl”

by Sam Juliano

The American turkey population gets a break for several more weeks after this past Thursday’s mass purging of the ranks.  This reminds me of a funny joke I saw on Facebook the day before the holiday that showed the majestic bird on the chopping block telling his friend: “I knew something was up after the farmer unfriended me yesterday.”  As always the end of the big gorging is followed by Christmas preparations in short order, and we will soon be regaled by everything yuletide.  Still, there’s plenty of fun to be had, and arts lovers will continue to have prime pickings.

At Wonders in the Dark the Caldecott Medal Contender series continues, with ten reviews posted to date, and at least that many more being planned in the coming weeks.  Jim Clark’s masterful review on The Assassin posted this past Wednesday and  a musical concert review of the latest performance of the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra also appeared this past Tuesday.  Many thanks to the loyal readers who once again over the past week have registered fabulous numbers by way of page views and comments.  It seems the holiday season always ignites added interest in the arts.

Today (November 30th)  is my dear wife Lucille’s 52nd birthday.

This past week produced a flurry of activity with three new film releases in the theaters, a soft rock venue at Joey’s in Hewitt, New Jersey with the ever masterful Gene Focarelli, the Rutgers-Maryland football game in Piscataway, New Jersey and some at-home viewing, and opera listening.  The Rutgers game was a disappointment, as the Scarlet Knights blew a 17-0 first quarter lead, falling to the Terapins 46-41 in drizzly Highpoint Solutions Stadium.  Soloist-guitarist Focarelli performed a bevy of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s standards with the help of some fabulous guests, including a young woman who this coming month has landed a prestigious gig at Manhattan’s The Deep End. Continue Reading »


by Sam Juliano

For picture book lovers it is a dream come true.  Renowned Cuban-American poet and novelist Margarita Engle and acclaimed Mexican-American muralist Rafael Lopez have collaborated on a work that has brought together the real-life aspirations of a mixed heritage Cuban girl trying to make it in a field dominated by males, with rapturous aesthetic beauty rarely conferred upon the form.  Based on the indomitable Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a spirited young girl who refused to buckle under to the prevailing make chauvinism in vogue on the island nation nicknamed “Pearl of the Antilles.”  Engle sets the stage early in establishing the sounds and images  that leave an indelible mark on a child who develops the determination to break through oppressive traditions:  She dreamed of pounding tall conga drums/tapping small bongo drums/and boom boom booming with long, loud sticks/on big, round, silvery moon-bright timbales.  Engle likens her homeland to a place of glowing musical praxis (an “island of music” in the “city of drumbeats”, but one that resolutely held the door shut to female complicity.  There was something about drum playing with its aggressive negotiation that seemed to cry out for male involvement, leaving the females to engage in the more “delicate” string instruments.  Initially her aspirations were restricted to dreams and the everyday beckoning that drove her further to action:  When she walked under wind-wavy palm trees in a flower-bright park/she heard the whir of parrot wings/the clack of woodpecker beats/the dancing tap of her own footsteps/and the comforting pat of her own heartbeat.

Nothing like hands-on exposure, and Millo was further taken on her path of redemption after attending a carnival and living out the at-home fantasies to achieve her inner purpose.  At home the tables and chairs became her drums, and she became airborne:  Her hands seemed to fly/As they rippled/rapped/and pounded all the rhythms of her drum dreams.  Her seeming chance to break through with her sisters in a fledgling all-girls band was quickly dashed when her father enforced the island’s dogged adversity to female drummers, an act that again forced the drum dream girl to solitary reverie.  Soon after, her father had second thoughts and enlisted his daughter with an experienced drummer to see if her talent was worth pursuing.  The teacher was summarily enraptured and soon agreed that she was qualified to strut her stuff on bongo drums at a garden cafe – where everyone who heard her dream-bright music/sang and danced and decided/that girls should always be allowed to play drums/and both girls and boys should feel free to dream. Continue Reading »

the-assassin-1 (1)

  © 2015 by James Clark

      Hou Hsiao Hsien is hardly a well-known name apart from a smallish corner of Asia and amongst a few film enthusiasts elsewhere. But those who do know the name and the film products carrying his name revere him for maintaining bittersweet solace, on the scale of the works of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963). I’ve noticed, in my relatively brief tenure of linking to movies, that the culture of film production and consumption heavily favors internalizing the filmed actions to sustain various predilections remarkable for their absence of anything but fixation upon a range of the tried and true stretching back to distant eons. Extremities of time, space and emotion (and concomitant technical extremities) only serve to confirm that horse and buggy ways are the way to go.

The assumption that Hou Hsiao Hsien offers in his work somewhat off-beat, eccentric stylization to speak on behalf of quiet and fragile souls runs, I fear, into the inconvenient presence of his recent vehicles, like, Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) and Millennium Mambo (2001), showing deft and intense rejigging of the ancient Chinese coordinating perspective of Yin and Yang. The latter-mentioned film’s graphically pinpointed ebb and flow of comprehensive verve within human sensibility is right on the money as to avant-garde endeavors (including quantum physics, disowned as such, or mordantly not) trailing back to the beginning of the twentieth century. (The former-mentioned film involves a woman named Ying who evinces considerable Yang.) On this note we must remark that many filmmakers from the mid-twentieth century on were at work on such palpable and problematic matters of consciousness, though not well recognized as such. These artists well understood that cinema was a potentially dangerous weapon in the context of the general medium’s conventionality. One of the foremost early film contrarians, Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973), produced, in 1969, near the end of his career, a film called, Army of Shadows, dealing with political intrigue during the Nazi occupation of France but at the same time dealing with righting a much larger structure of sensibility. Hou Hsiao Hsien, being as interested in survival as in pushing the envelope, though on record as being an avid fan of Godard and Truffaut, never alludes to Melville. Those red herrings stem from typical film industry flim-flam and they are most remarkable in light of his current film, The Assassin (2015), being as rooted in that French Resistance saga as in the Tang Dynasty of its narrative setting. The film’s protagonist, a lethal nemesis swayed by a princess-nun (that is, a charismatic ascetic on the order of an ISIS official), is named Yinniang. Her work with Yin and Yang is far more compelling than her day job. Continue Reading »


Sculpture of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, whose ‘Finlandia’ is one of classical music’s most beloved compositions.

by Sam Juliano

The Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra have been performing for seventy-six years in the affluent Bergen County, New Jersey town that bears its name.  Their annual concert schedule usually allows for three full venues, which are usually organized by way of form, common instrument, composer or theme.  The concert of Friday, November 7 brought together two famed organ compositions – Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, also referred to as the “Organ” Symphony.  Completing the classical quartet that comprised the concert were two renowned nationalistic works: Finlandia by Jean Sibelius and The Moldau (Vltava from Ma vlast).  While no classical music lover attends these local venues because they are expecting the polish, expertise and experience of the New York Philharmonic, they usually are able to revel in the passion and commitment of an ensemble that includes talented music students from local high schools and orchestral free lancers who are thrilled to secure such opportunities.

The idea of nationalism has been subverted in recent years, as the intended spirit has been hijacked by fanatics, who equate patriotism with terrorist acts against innocents.  Yet as he grew up Sibelius lived in a Finland controlled by Russia.  He also lived in a time when his countrymen were expected to speak Swedish.  Sibelius dodged these resented influences to attend a Finnish School, where he later developed an appreciation of his country’s rich literary tradition, which many years later he turned to when he wanted to write music to express his opposition to the Russianization of his country.  The patriotic poem, “The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River” served as an inspiration for a four-episode tone poem, which eventually came to be known as Finlandia.  One of the most stirring compositions in the classical repertoire, this “tone poem for orchestra” has long been regarded as the unofficial Finnish national anthem, and it debuted at the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, where it was performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic.  The piece opens with repeated brass turbulence which projects a measure of foreboding.  Ridgewood’s players were fully up to this provocative opening statement, which segues into a benign calm before the storm, and then on to a brisk and energetic passage in celebratory mode before the rapturous and expansive main theme makes its appearance – a theme of incredible emotional power that would rouse even those in a coma with its hymn like coda that beckons it’s listeners to offer their undivided attention and reverence. You don’t have to be Finnish to be moved to tears.  One of western music’s most renowned melodies then yields to a comparatively bombastic passage which encores the rapturous hymn at the start, but it is clear what passage has won its listener’s hearts. Continue Reading »


carol 2

by Sam Juliano

Turkey Day is upon us, and we at Wonders in the Dark would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone stateside a wonderful Thursday with family and friends and safe traveling for all those visiting.  For the 21st year consecutively our entire family of seven will be spending the day in a mansion-sized home in scenic Butler, New Jersey with Lucille’s sister’s family and about 45 or so others in the big Lampmann family that includes children and grandchildren.  Quite a day as it is I’m sure for many of our dear friends here.  Anyone placing comments are encouraged to share their own plans for that day.  Even our friends outside our borders are welcome to talk about their expectations for Thursday, even if it is work as usual.

A big congratulations are in order for Aaron West and two other bloggers, who pulled off one of the most glorious blogging ventures ever over the past week with a wildly popular Criterion Collection blogathon that wound up involving nearly the entire film community.  Wonders in the Dark was honored to participate.  The amount of work Aaron and his colleagues put into this is simply mind-boggling.  Kudos to all.  Speaking of Criterion, I was ecstatic beyond words this past week after the company announced upcoming February blu-rays of the 1970’s Swedish films The Emigrants and The New Land.  No films have had me praying for release more than these, and I must say I was bursting with excitement when I read of the upcoming releases.  These two masterpieces never even received legitimate DVD releases, much less blu rays.  I have been holding on to my laser disc copies for years.  February overall is an amazing month for the folks at Criterion with both Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Nagisa Oshima’s Japanese masterpiece Death by Hanging.  The latter release was also cause for celebration among cinephiles.

The site has enjoyed an unusually phenomenal week as far as page views are concerned.  This past Thursday nearly 2,400 hits were registered, with the book review of Mummy Cat largely responsible.  This is the highest total for a single day in over seven months.

As we approach the time of the year when ‘Best of” movie lists are imminent, there is a frenzy to see some of the prestige pictures that are opening.  Though my plans in the upcoming days include seeing Room, Love and James White, this past week had me busy on the domestic front.  Lucille and I did see a masterpiece in Todd Haynes’ Carol at the Angelika Film Center, but otherwise the only other event was attending a classical concert at the exquisite West Side Presbyterian Church on South Monroe Street in Ridgewood , N.J.  I will be penning a full review of this concert this week, but suffice to say it included beloved compositions by Bach, Sibelius, Smetana and Saint-Saens, all of which are personal favorites. Continue Reading »

night owl

by Sam Juliano

Note:  The following is a transcript of a classroom presentation delivered on Monday, November 17th in a Children’s Literature II undergraduate class held in Hepburn Hall at Jersey City State University.  Each of the eighteen students enrolled in the class were assigned with finding a picture book to “promote” as a Caldecott Medal candidate, and to argue their case to their peers.  Students were given the option to use smart boards and various hand-outs to support their sponsorship of their choices.  One of the group, a third-year student named Mariana Vega chose a pre-school book titled ‘Night Owl’ by Toni Yuli.  The long-time Professor of the course, Dr. Kathryn Smith served as the moderator.

Dr. Smith:  Can I have your attention please.  Today, Mariana will be talking about her proposed choice for Caldecott Medal recognition.  (looking at Mariana)  Would you state the title of your book and its author and illustrator or both artists is they are different?
Mariana Vega:   My book is ‘Night Owl’ by Toni Yuli, who created both the words and the illustrations.  It is the second book in a proposed trilogy that Ms. Yuli is currently completing.  The first book in her trilogy is Early Bird, which is easy to see as the stylistic forerunner of Night Owl, though as a daytime book it is brighter and more of a primary color book.
Dr. Smith:  Has the author/illustrator produced many books?
Mariana Vega:  No, she has not.  Unlike the protagonist of Early Bird Toni Yuly is a late bloomer.  She has worked for years in the King County Library system and has no doubt brought a wealth of experience as far as being exposed to children’s literature and the needs and preferences of today’s students.  It seems she gets at least some of her inspiration from nature, as she lives and works in a small house near the water in the state of Washington.

Continue Reading »

room 3

by Sam Juliano

It is rare for one to conclude that a title sequence is the most unforgettable component in a film that offers so much more, and succeeds admirably on practically every level.  Yet this is precisely the case with Ismael Merchant and James Ivory’s ravishing period piece A Room with a View (1985) based on the beloved 1908 novel of the same name by E. M. Forster.  Over the sublime vocals of soft-toned soprano Kiri TeKanawa, who delivers an incomparable reading of Giacomo Puccini’s great aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi, the third part of the composer’s triptych opera Il Trittico, we are treated to the sumptuous watercolor illustrations by Florentine artist Folco Cianfanelli. Ornate shapes, patterns and designs accompany the peace meal scrolling of the film’s actors and craftsmen, but more importantly this collaboration of aural and artistic elements render the film a sensory as well as narrative appeal.  The Forster hook was there, it was up to Merchant and Ivory to craft the proper sensibilities.  In any case the affinity for Puccini did not end with the beloved credit aria, as the big kiss in the Italian fields was immeasurably boosted by the intoxicating “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from the composer’s La Rondine, also voiced by the inimitable Ms. Te Kanawa.  The number is revisited in part by way of orchestration in other parts of the film.  When Puccini isn’t dominating the soundtrack in his traditional take no prisoners manner -his two arias accentuate the richness of the setting and the romantic underpinning of the story-  the Merchant/Ivory stock company composer Richard Robbins brings his own considerable measure of lyricism that is perfectly attuned to the score’s operatic hook.  As far as the aforementioned credit sequence is concerned it should be noted that the same design is interspersed throughout the film in the manner of chapter titles.

It could certainly be argued that Forster’s Howard’s End and A Passage to India are more complex novels with a wider breadth, but by way of delight and engagement A Room with a View may hold poll position in his canon.  The novel is an Edwardian comedy of manners with some acidic wit that is magically transformed on the screen from what seems like a light and frivolous enterprise into something much more soulful in its rapturous appreciation of Italy’s scenic resplendence.  It wound up influencing a host of other films like Enchanted April and Under the Tuscan Sun, but on the strength of it’s writing, cinematography, music, set design and especially it’s cast it is the best in it’s sub-genre.   Continue Reading »


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