Archive for December, 2013

Screen capture from Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant, lacerating Iranian dram “The Past,” one of the best films of 2013.

Timeless classic “The Wizard of Oz” is a visual stunner in 3D.

by Sam Juliano

This week’s Monday Morning Diary falls in the time frame between Christmas and New Year’s, so as such it considers a period of time when many have enjoyed some vintage entertainment time.  Its been cold for the most part in the NYC area, but not at all unbearably so, and at the moment this post is being prepared an all-day rain is apparently drawing to a close.  Today marked the conclusion of the National Football League regular season, with the local Giants and Jets both gaining wins to allow them to finish 7-9 and 8-8 respectively, though obviously they were shut out of the playoffs.  Otherwise it’s mostly a time for people to descend on crowded, sold-out multiplexes and to sit home compiling their own best-of-the-year lists.  Right?  Ha!  I’m sure most have far better to do with their time,  like relaxing and taking in some great music and/or reading some good literature.  Christmas Day made for a marvelously fun time for the family, as we spent it over my youngest brother-his wife-and two young daughters’ home with my other brother and my sister and their families and my 83 year-old father, who cooked up his usual killer eggplant parmigiana.  I hope everyone had special days and would love to hear the reports!

I want to thank Dee Dee once again for all the time and effort she expended in keeping the site wonderfully adorned and attuned to the holiday season.  She has faithfully completed this time-consuming task for the past four years running, and I remained overwhelmed by her incomparable generosity of spirit.  She is truly a one-of-a-kind human being. (more…)


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by Sam Juliano

I first encountered the remarkable Dr. Katherine Smith at the then Jersey City State College in the fall semester of 1977 in a class titled basically enough: “Children’s Literature.”  Smith was an old-fashioned type, born and raised in the mid-west, a perfectionist, whose aptitude for being thorough was only equaled by her passion for her favorite subject and personal hobby: children’s books.  She adored the masters: McCloskey, Burton, Cooney, Lionni, Lawson, White, Grahame, L’Engle, Wilder and the d’Aulaires and glowingly discussed their art and examined their work with the intricacy and diligence of a fine tooth comb.  I never forgot how vital she regarded the matter of “paper” used in the making of the books.  At the time I though she was a bit off her rocker in that regard, but I have now come to appreciate the sensory, often intoxicating quality of a good picture book made with the right texture and design.  It is, I have learned the difference between when may be a great read and a book of permanence, one that will forever be cherished and re-visited because the paper has successfully collaborated on the reading of a book.


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by James Clark

 You might think that having the likes of Dylan Thomas (he of, “Do not go gentle into that good night”) drop by at Christmas would be tantamount to exclusively broaching Scrooge’s Christmas Eves prior to that special one. Just in case our unlikely courier of charm might, to some, fixedly and unwelcomely portend a variation of The Nightmare before Christmas, we also have in our sack the sure-fire James Herriot and his just-right reminiscence about The Christmas Day Kitten. I’ll keep my enthusing, about Thomas’ visit, to a minimum, whereupon there is the YouTube of the author’s 1952 reading; and, then, to some hints about Herriot’s doing so much more than damage control.

    As good a place as any to reach the nub of Thomas’ going back to the ways of Christmas celebration when he was a boy in Wales is the moment—somehow still compelling to him as an adult—when he and his friend, Jim, “…patient, cold and callous… waited to snowball the cats.” This glimpse of cold-weather crudity striving for gratifying sizzle sets the tempo of every incident recalled. A fire breaks out from an errant bid for hospitality, and a maiden aunt asks the firemen, “Would you like anything to read?” Young Dylan brags to younger children there, about the unique wild side of winters past, postmen past, Christmas presents past and the uncles past (“There are always uncles at Christmas. The same.”), galvanizing a domestic, even ascetic celebration like that into a spectacle of slightly eerie departures from a long-standing sedateness. After the luncheon feast (where the uncles shone at over-indulgence), the boy-adventurer would go out for a walk with a few chums. A wiser Thomas describes such a moment as that in which the callow, irrepressible little show-off would tarnish beyond fruitful recognition the unembellished magic of life around him and within. “The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks around their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying, “Excelsior.” On the “poor streets,” the children “cat-called” after the stuffed revellers, their cries, “…fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay.” At tea, Auntie Hannah “laced hers with rum… and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave.” (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1940 94m) DVD1/2 (Italy only)

A bit of hypnoleptic catolepsy

p  Mitchell Leisen  d  Mitchell Leisen  w  Preston Sturges  ph  Ted Tetzlaff  ed  Doane Harrison  m  Frederick Hollander  art  Roland Anderson, Hans Dreier

Barbara Stanwyck (Lee Leander), Fred MacMurray (John Sargent), Beulah Bondi (Mrs Sargent), Elizabeth Patterson (Aunt Emma), Sterling Holloway (Willie Simms), Willard Robertson (Francis X.O’Leary), John Wray (Hank), Georgia Caine (Lee’s mother),

There’s a favourite anecdote, a quote from Herman J.Mankiewicz, where he describes Barbara Stanwyck as his ideal.  He pictures coming home to her at their cottage in Beverly Hills, finding an apple pie waiting and Barbara wearing no panties.  It’s a vision that conjures up two very different films in her career, The Purchase Price, an early Bill Wellman pre-coder where she effectively plays a mail order bride out in the sticks, and this later film.  At the time, Remember the Night didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary, but it’s one of those films that seem vital in retrospect, providing a definite crossroads in the careers of several important talents.

A young shoplifter is prevented from release by an assistant D.A.’s machinations to get her hearing held over the Christmas holidays.  Feeling bad, he gets her released for the festive period, and then ends up finding that she lived not far from his home town, so he gives her a lift on the way to visit his own folks.  Then her mother slams the door in her face…so we know where it’s going, eh?  But don’t jump to conclusions, for though this may be a holiday favourite, it’s a sobering one.  (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Warmer temperatures have oddly taken hold on the east coast as Christmas Day 2013 approaches.  As always the site would like to thank the incomparable Dee Dee for keeping the holiday spirit and context alive and well on the sidebar and with the winter landscape on the main pages, and for all her other pertinent and timely movie-related announcements connected to events and on-line activities.  We at Wonders in the Dark would like to extend best wishes for the holidays to all our friends and faithful readers.  A special thanks to everyone who has taken time from their busy schedules to say hello by e mail or leave comments under our posts.  Our entire family will be spending the 25th at the nearby home of my 83 year-old father with my brothers and sister also in attendance with their own families.  I look forward to sharing Christmas Day stories with everyone on next week’s  MMD.  Again Happy Holidays to All.

I will finally be sending a group e mail to all those who participated in the western countdown later this week with the specifications for the upcoming ‘Romantic Film’ countdown, a project that will launch some time in April of 2014. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

If ever a picture book was tailor-made to win a Caldecott Medal, Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild pushes all the right buttons.  First off, the esteemed author-illustrator won a Caldecott Honor last year for his pencil colored illustrations to the spook themed Creepy Carrots, written by Aaron Reynolds.  The general rule of thumb is that one or more silver medals usually leads to the gold, but like all other awards it invariably is contingent on timing and the strength of the competition.  There is also the little matter of “taste,” which more often than not divides those teachers, librarians and book fans who annually express some issues with the final edict.  Such was certainly the case two years ago when the association inexplicably gave the Caldecott Medal (for the second time) to abstract artist Chris Raschka for the lightweight A Ball for Daisy, just a few years after he had won his first gold medal for The Hello Goodbye Window.  Raschka’s win shocked many, since the same year featured one of the most beautifully illustrated books of all-time with Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green.    (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Note:  This is the first in what will be an ongoing series on the picture books that are projected to be in contention for the American Library Association’s annual Caldecott Medal for illustration, awarded annually since 1937.  The Caldecott Medal and the runners-up “honor” books are given alongside the Newbery and Newbery “honor” books as the centerpiece of a late January meeting each year by the association.  The Caldecotts are given for illustration, while the Newberys are given for prose.  Hence the “picture” books are awarded with the Caldecotts while the books with mostly words are considered for the Newberys.  It is my intent to discuss the front runners for the Caldecott Medal, at the rate of two or three posts per week up until the actual day of announcement, a date I will post as soon as I am informed of.  I am hoping to provide opinion and analysis for the 9 or 10 books I see as the frontrunners.  I own each and every book I will be discussing as part of a massive personal collection of Caldecott and Newbery books amassed over decades.

Every morning, I play a game with my father.

He goes knock knock on my door

and I pretend to be asleep

till he gets right next to the bed.

And my papa, he tells me, “I love you.”

     Perhaps the most emotionally powerful picture book of the year, Daniel Beaty’s Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream For Me was the outgrowth of a pulverizing monologue by the author that painfully chronicles a childhood lived under the ravages of incarceration.  Indeed in the author’s note at the conclusion of the 40 page work Beatty reveals:  When I was a small child, my father was my principal caregiver.  While my mother was at the office working, my father would change my diapers, feed me, and let me ride on his shoulders to the grocery store.  He also woke me up each morning with our private ‘Knock Knock’ game.  When I was three he was incarcerated.  This experience was traumatic for me. and I was not allowed to visit my father again in prison for may years.  Beaty acknowledged the void in his life, and the need later on to come to terms with this extended separation, and to offer support to all fatherless children to overcome adversity and still make something beautiful of their lives.  Beaty found just the right illustrator, the fellow African-American Brian Collier, to visualize the childhood emptiness and the imaginary dialogue he continued to engage in with a father he was losing identification with.  Collier’s stunning watercolor collages represent some of the best work he has ever done, and that includes the magnificent illustrations he crafted for his three extraordinary Caldecott Honor books:  Martin’s Big Words (perhaps the best picture book we have to this point on Martin Luther King, Jr.), Rosa (on civil tights figure Rosa Parks) and Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave (whose significance is clear enough in the title.)  Certainly Collier well-deserved his three silver Honor citations, and actually should have won the gold medal for Martin’s Big Words in 2002, over The Three Pigs, which for all intents and purposes was the most unimpressive of David Weisner’s three Caldecott Medal winners.  There is an underlying sadness in the new book that manifests itself in the fleeting images of a calendar documenting the continuing days of loneliness, a father’s hat lying on a table, unworn clothing draped over the end of a table and impoverished environs, made more unbearable by incomparable emotional loss.   (more…)

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until 2

by Allan Fish

(Japan 1950 110m) not on DVD

Aka. Mata au hi made

If only I had wings…

p  Shizuo Sakagami  d  Tadashi Imai  w  Toshio Yasumi, Yoko Mizuki  ph  Shunichiro Nakao  m  Masao Oki  art  Yasuhide Kato

Yoshiko Kuga (Keiko Ono), Eiji Okada (Saburo Tajima), Haruko Sugimura (Suga Ono), Osamu Takizawa (Eisaku), Akira Oizumi, Eizo Tanaka, Hiroshi Kondo,

It’s a scene that would be cherished and preserved in the cinema’s pantheon of moments were it known; a simple scene – a young man saying goodbye to his girl at her home.  They are trying to come to terms with the fact that the fates don’t seem to want to be together.  He leaves, and she goes back to the living room and moves to the window to watch him go.  Snow is falling steadily.  She waits for him to look back, which he does about 10 yards or so away.  He starts to come back and stops in front of the window.  He’s positioned lower down than her, but after longingly staring at each other, and the camera showing us each of their anguished faces in turn, he stands on tip toe to pucker up his lips to the glass.  She in turn motions her head down to meet his lips.

It’s one of cinema’s great kisses, all the more so because their lips don’t actually meet.  One can imagine Leopoldo Trieste’s priest in Cinema Paradiso shaking his head, muttering “no” and shaking his little bell, and then seeing it again on Alfredo’s kissing montage.  Sadly, Tadashi Imai is not viewed as one of the sacred Japanese directors in the west.  No, he’s not Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa or Naruse, but he’s one of that select band who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.  He’s already represented here as I write by his later Bushido: Cruel Code of the Samurai, but the fifties was Imai’s richest period.  His Muddy Water was once rated the best Japanese film of 1953 by Kinema Junpo (ahead of Tokyo Story and Ugetsu Monogatari!).  And while their opinion may have cooled on that portmanteau film, Until We Meet Again still placed high in their Top 100 Japanese films a few years back, at no.30 the highest placed of the director’s films. (more…)

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Stage capture of Metropolitan opera production of Richard Strauss’ magnificent ‘Der Rosenkavalier’

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as Walt Disney and P.L. Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks”

by Sam Juliano

The white stuff has been making repeated visits over the past two weeks to those residing in the mid-west and the northeast.  Those who closely follow the weather forecasts will no doubt point to the Farmer’s Almanac, which predicted quite a while back that 2013-14 would bring the full wrath of Father Winter.  In any case, it does raise the prospects for the always-elusive White Christmas, and gives people the chance to spend some quality time indoor with the family.  Those aiming to do some late shopping will have to deal with traffic and the elements, however.

Interest in the upcoming ‘Best Romantic Films of All-Time’ countdown has been acute, what with readers passionate and active in the site comment sections.  E mails have not yet been sent out to the anticipated participants, but will be later this week.  The ballots are due by April 1st, and the actual countdown will launch later that month.

Lucille and I had an extremely active week.  First off, on Wednesday evening we took in the December marching band concert in the Cliffside Park High School Auditorium.  Sammy has played the baritone for three years, while freshman Danny is a member of the concert chorus.  Some holiday and popular favorites were offered up in a festive and spirited two hour concert. (more…)

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Fontaine with Judith Anderson in Hitchcock’s 1940 ‘Rebecca’


by Sam Juliano

Just hours after the world learned of the passing of film icon Peter O’Toole at age 81, yet another legend has expired.  One of the most beautiful actresses of the golden era, indeed in film history, 96 year-old Joan Fontaine, whose five decade feud with older sister Olivia de Havilland (incredibly still living at 97) passed away of natural causes Sunday afternoon in California.  Some believed Fontaine and her sister would break 100, spurred on in part by their famed animosity, fueled at one time by rivalry and later by family disputes.

Fontaine’s most famous role was the lead in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, a role that cemented her as a beauty queen, and she was also well known in her Oscar winning role in Suspicion opposite Cary Grant in another Hitchcock movie from the 1940’s and in the superb Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) and as the lead opposite Orson Welles in 1944’s Jane Eyre.  

Fontaine’s passing has made this a terrible week for the film industry,  after the announcements of the deaths of Peter O’Toole, Eleanor Parker and Audrey Totter.


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