Archive for September, 2008

by Sam Juliano

     The 2008-09 season is now underway at the Metropolitan Opera, as the schedule kicked off early last week with the staging of Richard Strauss’ Salome, in a production that has been showcased at the opera house for several years.  Karita Mattila has won wide praise for playing the central title role.  Both Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and Mozart’s Don Giovanni have already been staged, with both still having a number of performances left in the upcoming weeks.  The Metropolitan is at the center of an exterior cosmetic facelift this season as the center fountain and courtyard between the world-famous opera house and both Avery Fisher Hall and the New York State Theatre.  As a result, unseemly wooden barriers obscure the the ornate structure’s front facade, and will probably remain for several months.  Wonders in the Dark will be there for a number of this year’s offerings, which contain an attractive mix of the traditional warhorses and some brand new productions.  The schedule, which will run through May, includes a generous number of performances of the following operas:

Salome (Richard Strauss)

La Gioconda (Amare Ponchielli)

La Boheme (Giacomo Puccini)

Cavalleria Rusticanna/Pagliacci (Mascagni-Leoncavallo)

La Cenerentola (Rossini)

La Damnation de Faust (Hector Berlioz)

Doctor Atomic (John Adams)

Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky)

Gotterdammerung (Richard Wagner)

Lucia di Lammermoor (Gaetano Donizetti)

Madama Butterfly (Puccini)

The Magic Flute (Mozart)

Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck)

The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)

Das Rheingold (Richard Wagner)

La Rondine (Puccini)

Rigoletto (Verdi)

Rusalka (Dvorak)

Siegried (Richard Wagner)

La Sonnambula (Bellini)

Thais (Massanet)

Tristan und Isolda (Richard Wagner)

La Traviata (Verdi)

Die Walkure (Richard Wagner)

Although I have seen every one of the these operas except for three (Doctor Atomic, Thais, La damnation de Faust) at the Met over the years, I plan on seeing some of the new productions of some of these timeless masterpieces, and reviewing them for Wonders in the Dark.  In a year of cosmetic transition it is clear that the Met is taking few gambles, and is mainly going with the traditional works that fill all the seats.  I am still excited about the new season, and plan to see Salome sometime over the next week.


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by Sam Juliano

     A festive and star-studded atmosphere greeted Lincoln Center Film Society Chairperson Ann Tenenbaum as she took to the podium to introduce program director Richard Pena, before the festival’s opening feature The Class (Entre les Murs), was screened before a near-sell out crowd at Avery Fisher Hall as the opening feature of the 46th annual New York Film Festival on Friday evening at 8:30 P.M.  Tenenbaum drew laughter from the audience when she suggested that those who bypassed the scheduled Obama-McCain debate on television to see the French Palme’s Or winner, “made the right choice.”  Pena applauded the board of directors’ decision to open the popular film event with the French film, and he introduced director Laurent Cantet to sustained and rousing applause.  Cantet, who helmed the impressive Human Resources several years back, then introduced his producers and writers as well as ten members of his youthful cast, all of whom flew in from Paris for the big event.       


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by Allan Fish

(UK 1992 85m) DVD2

Shining a torch into the night sky

p  Olivia Stewart  d/w  Terence Davies  ph  Michael Coulter  ed  William Diver  md  Robert Lockhart  art  Christopher Hobbs  cos  Monica Howe

Marjorie Yates (mother), Leigh McCormack (Bud), Anthony Watson (Kevin), Nicholas Lamont (John), Ayse Owens (Helen), Tina Malone (Edna), Jimmy Wilde (Curly), Robin Polley (Mr Nicholls),

Watching Terence Davies’ autobiographical piece was, to this reviewer, rather like flicking through a family album, heralding from a family barely removed from that depicted in the film, in location, time and spirit.  It isn’t a prerequisite to be acquainted with the north, or with Catholicism, or remembrances of the 1950s, but it certainly helps.  And though those who cannot tick those boxes can and do enjoy and celebrate the film, they do miss something in the translation. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano


    The most celebrated cultural “event” in New York City over the summer was unquestionably the first-ever public display of the works of Britain’s greatest painter and one of the world’s most revered landscape artists,  J.M.W. Turner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Showcasing 150 paintings and watercolors, the exhibition was that rarest of opportunities to get the full measure of the man, who lived from 1775-1851, first in Covent Garden and then in Brentwood until his acceptance to the Royal Academy of Art.  For those with stamina and patience (the hall was a veritable mob scene on the afternoon of Sunday, September, 21st, the last day of the retrospective) one was rewarded with a thrilling cascade of evanescent images, which essayed subjects from the Old Testament and classical myths to post-Napoleonic politics, the whaling industry and the common people living near the sea trying to survive.  Certainly the contemporary viewer is challenged by such anachronistic imagery, but in a series of large canvas images, including the huge wall mural of a colonial ship that adorned the multi-roomed display, you can’t help but be awestruck by the sheer scope and veracity of the presentation. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 2007 158m) DVD1/2

I drink your milkshake

p  Daniel Lupi, Joanne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson  d/w  Paul Thomas Anderson  novel  “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair  ph  Robert Elswit  ed  Dylan Tichenor  m  Jonny Greenwood  art  Jack Fisk

Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Paul Sunday/Eli Sunday), Kevin J.O’Connor (Henry Brands), Ciaran Hinds (Fletcher Hamilton), Russell Harvard (H.W.Plainview), Barry del Sherman (H.B.Ailman), Paul F.Tompkins (Prescott), Sydney McAllister (Mary Sunday),

Following No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford came a third masterpiece of 2007 to be set in the west.  All three depict very different worlds, and all three are resoundingly successful in recreating them.  All three have, in different ways, contentious endings, and though the ending of There Will be Blood may not be quite as out there as the Coens’ film, it comes darned close.  Andrew Dominik’s film about the legendary outlaw took the documentaries of Ken Burns as inspiration, while the Coens were indebted to John Sayles’ Lone Star and their own earlier works.  Anderson borrows left, right and centre, from George Stevens’ Giant (it was shot in much the same location), from John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed, from the visual palette of Terence Malick (helped by employing Malick’s old designer Jack Fisk) and even the stylistic touches of Stanley Kubrick.  Not only that, but he creates a film worthy of comparison to all of them.

            After making his fortune in gold and silver at the turn of the century, Daniel Plainview turns his attention to the black gold, trying to set up drills throughout the Midwest and con naïve homesteaders out of their property for peanuts.  He travels with his small boy, H.W., and, following the tip off of one Paul Sunday, he turns up at the Sunday property in Little Boston, California, with the intention of getting rich on the oil just waiting to be pumped.  While there, he runs into competition from the young fire and brimstone teacher, none other than Paul’s twin brother, Eli.  Their confrontation ultimately proves fatal to one of them.

            At first glance, Blood may seem a more subdued film for Anderson, with none of the trademark camera flourishes of Boogie Nights and Magnolia.  Yet the stylistic subtexts are clear to see, and the influence of Kubrick is most striking.  Take the opening prologue set in 1898, which retrospectively seems to evoke the Dawn of Man sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and compare it to the finale, which not only evokes the apes at the watering hole but Alex and his droogs at the casino in A Clockwork Orange, only with a bowling pin the weapon of choice rather than a large bone or cane.  (As if to emphasise the parallel, he accompanies the credits with a bit of Brahms.)  He’s not afraid to make the film basically a two-header, as no other actor besides Day-Lewis and Dano get a look in and, with Day-Lewis holding centre stage throughout.  To say that it is a magnificent performance is not even close.  It’s not only his greatest performance but one of the great performances of 21st century cinema.  On one level, there are similarities to his previous psychotic, Bill Cutting, in Gangs of New York, but to listen to, though there’s just a hint of Sean Connery in there, he’s essentially a mix of Walter and, especially, John Huston.  That in itself is very much deliberate and at one with Anderson’s own vision, evoking memories of not only the aforementioned Madre but even more so John’s performance as the equally evil Noah Cross in Chinatown.  Indeed, one could almost imagine Plainview and Cross related.  Plainview deals in oil, Cross in water, but both tried to bleed California dry with sheer greed.  To Plainview, in his parlance, it’s drinking the other fellow’s milk shake, to Cross it’s bringing Los Angeles to the water or vice versa.  One could discuss the parallel till Doomsday, if we’re honest, but that would give us no time to mention the first time score of Radiohead’s Greenwood, whose almost minimalist strings could not be more perfect.  There Will be Blood; there will be greatness.

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by Allan Fish

The loss of favourite sites for moviegoers on the internet can be quite an emotional time.  Those with long memories will recall such suppliers as Machiaveldvd and others, gone but not forgotten.  The last month or two has seen three more such sites hit the dust.

Firstly, there’s the empire that was SuperHappyFun.  This American site had been going for numerous years and with its smiling child with shouting Japanese welcome, was a favourite haunt for those seeking DVDRs of films not in the public domain.  In its time, such films as Bresson’s Une Femme Douce, Fassbinder’s World on Wires (which I reviewed earlier this week) were available on their books, while for a joyous period in 2006-07, they had a subsite specialising in the Japanese New Wave, with English subtitled translations of various great works of Nagisa Oshima, Susumu Hani and Shohei Imamura, which I for one benefited greatly.  If one goes to the site (www.superhappyfun.com) now, it will take you to another site who have inherited much of their library.  I have not used this new site, so cannot comment, only to say that SHF, the acronym by which so many film buffs knew it, will be sorely missed. (more…)

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City Lights *****

by Allan Fish

(USA 1931 87m) DVD1/2

Kissing the lucky rabbit’s foot

p/d/w/ed/m  Charles Chaplin  ph  Rollie Totheroh  md  Alfred Newman  art  Charles D.Hall

Charles Chaplin (the tramp), Virginia Cherrill (the blind girl), Harry Myers (the drunken millionaire), Florence Lee (grandmother), Allan Garcia (butler), Jean Harlow, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin,

Richard Attenborough’s 1992 film Chaplin was not one of the best biopics ever made, by any stretch of the imagination.  Its best moment was a brilliant sequence showing the putting together of a movie in a hotel room to keep it from a wife’s lawyers to which some of the music for City Lights was played as backing.  Later on, we see the trouble Chaplin had with the sequence where the girl first comes to believe that the tramp is a millionaire.  That it took him so long just shows his patience, the amount of control he had on his productions at that time (only Lean and Kubrick in recent memory could match it) and his gift for using the simple to make things happen. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     A resourceful and committed young Chinese filmaker named Ying Liang has successfully transmitted to the film-going world what it is to live in China today and how its Westernized capitalistic society (which seemingly coexists with the communist underpinnings) is a ruthless testament to the grave price in values that must be forfeited to sustain it. 

It is astonishing that the 100 minute film cost only $5,000 to produce, although with non-professional actors and the use of family members, as well as a video camera, there was no real overhead to speak of.  It is furthermore rather remarkable that such a comparatively primitive mode of expression could yield such a trenchant view of a country in cultural transition and turmoil, but the stark urgency of his pale compositions which capture life unfolding, lend this picture an authenticity rarely achieved even when striven for.

  A 17 year old boy named Xu Yun (the actual name of the young amateur playing the role) is given the lamentable news that his Sichuan Province village is being razed for a government industrial project.  This occurrence is projected here as one that is typical in modern-day China, causing the displacement and relocation of millions, a concern most magnificent conveyed in the recent documentary Up The Yangtze.  In view of this sudden upheaval, the youth decides to embark upon a journey to the city of Zigong to find the father that abandoned his family six years ago, armed with an unspecific address and a pair of geese he carries in a basket on his back. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     One of the great masterpieces of world cinema has been showcased for several weeks at the IFC in Manhattan in a sparkling restored print.  Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 sound film Day of Wrath, which appeared more than ten years after his Vampyr, is a restrained chamber drama that examines guilt, sin and retribution in Denmark in the seventeenth century, when witch hunts were all the rage.

The ominous opening scenes unfold with startling power when an old woman named Herlofs Marthe (Anne Svierkier) is first seen handing some herbs to another person in a darkened kitchen room, and then is observed fleeing after the tolling of bells, signifying that the Puritan hierarchy have now identified their latest “conquest” and are hot in pursuit.  The nefarious nature of summary judgement in regards to the vivacious Herlofs Marthe is evident by establishing that nothing she has done (or not done) is in any way harmful or contrary to religious doctrine.  Her “dabbling” in remedies, which is enough to incur condemnation and eventual execution on a burning pyre illustrate a cloistered society ruled by fear, suspicion and an inflexible and fanatical religious doctrine.  Before the austere and mesmerizing drama plays out, it is clear that in this society the closest of relationships would be betrayed if there is even a slight hint of aberrant behavior.  At the time of its release many believed Dreyer was being implicitly clear in his own condemnation of Nazi Germany, which overran his home country of Denmark, and forged a society that rounded up those who resisted, enacting swift justice based on unfounded evidence, and encouraged family members to spy on each other.  Dreyer, in an interview conducted in 1964 after the debut of his final film Gertrud, and three years before his death at age 79, stated that any parallel between the narrative content of his film and the Nazis was strictly coincidental.  Still, it’s somewhat of a miracle the film was even made at all in that oppressive time.


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The Last Bolshevik ****½

by Allan Fish

(France 1992 120m) DVD1/2 (France only)

Aka. Le Tombeau d’Alexandre

I am a peasant by blood

p  Michael Kustow  d/w  Chris Marker  ph/ed  Chris Marker  m  Alfred Shnitke 

Certainly amongst the ten single most overlooked entries in this tome, Chris Marker’s truly transcendental film remains in relative obscurity today.  Pauline Kael called it “a great film that almost no-one has seen“, and I think that the irony would not be lost on Marker or, indeed, on his subject.  The Last Bolshevik is the analysis – story seems such a mundane, inappropriate word – of the life and career of Alexander Medvedkin by those who knew, loved and respected him.  Even now, it’s possible you may never have heard of him, and it’s perhaps only by the alphabetical structure of this book that a few of you who have heard of him have.  L comes after H, after all, and early amongst the Hs you will find an entry for Medvedkin’s accepted masterpiece, Happiness.  It’s also perhaps ironic that I first came to view the film, thanks to the US DVD release in 2008, when Marker himself was approaching the age when Medvedkin himself had died. (more…)

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