Archive for July, 2015



© 2015 by James Clark

 Most crime stories committed to film are suffused with satisfaction that they’ll give the audience technology-based thrills along lines of impressive actors, “Keeping them on the edge of their seats” about how it all will end. They might also factor into the market prediction their having scared the shit out of hard-pressed contemporaries apropos of society becoming an ever more vicious battlefield. What else could an ambitious filmmaker in the “action” field ask for?

If we keep our eyes wide open while watching Michael Mann’s crime story, Collateral (2004), we might surprise ourselves that the abovementioned formula admits of being surpassed a million times over. However, not only the practitioners lend themselves to that dead weight of old timey fun, but also the audience. Departures on the screen from lazy fun can, in the buttery hands of the popcorn inactivists, be readily fixed as akin to Superbowl ads and attributed to the dime-a-dozen charms of movie stars. Our account of the uniqueness of such a film as we have in our face right now depends upon those few viewers who can take to heart its voluminous concentration upon registers of displacement and distress far beyond anything mainstream experience provides. So while Mann would be quite happy to bank the funds coming from customers who twist his work beyond recognition (the DVD supplement fascinatingly contributing to the confusion)—I recall overhearing a viewer in an art museum getting clear that the painting in front of him was on the order of “Untilted”—there is about his enterprise a clandestine range of rewards generously out there for those whose assimilative energies have not been beaten down. (more…)

Read Full Post »


By Brian E. Wilson

Ah, nostalgia.

After offering to write this review of Rob Reiner’s nostalgic Stephen King adaptation, set in 1959, I felt a sudden wave of nostalgia myself.  Memories of catching this funny, profane, surprisingly moving gem in August 1986 came flooding back to me.  The movie, about four misfit 12-year-olds (all with distant and/or neglectful fathers) forming a temporary bond as they travel by foot to see their first real dead body (an older boy struck by a train), set itself apart that summer.  I ended up watching it several times at the theater over the next few months, but would not see it again until I recently revisited the movie.  Although I was heading into my senior year of college at the time of its release, Stand by Me still spoke to me as I struggled with the notion of wanting to be a writer (just like the film’s lead character Gordie, beautifully played by Wil Wheaton as a boy, and Richard Dreyfuss as a reminiscing adult called simply “The Writer”).

Taut, economically directed by Reiner (I forgot that the film is only 88 minutes long), the film works on so many levels:  as a rollicking yet tear-jerking vehicle for its young stars, as a sensitive if troubling coming of age story, and as a successful big screen treatment of a Stephen King novella called “The Body.”  The modestly budgeted film not only became one of my favorite movies of 1986, but a sizable hit, and one that helped Ben E. King’s gorgeous title song (co-written by the singer, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller) return to the Billboard Top Ten one more time.  (Do yourself a favor, and look at the wonderful video with an effervescent Ben E. King doing some classic dance moves with stars Wheaton and River Phoenix on YouTube.)  Side note:  the trivia hound in me must note that the movie is set in 1959, but the tune didn’t come out until 1961–but hey, why quibble, when a song is this good and so appropriate thematically?

Before I revisited the movie (for the first time in around 28 years), I asked myself “will this film hold up?”  I am happy to report that it does. (more…)

Read Full Post »



by J.D. Lafrance

Peter Weir is a filmmaker fascinated by outsider protagonists thrust into strange environments that they must navigate, be it an Australian journalist in 1965 Jakarta (The Year of Living Dangerously) or a veteran Philadelphia cop hiding out in Amish country (Witness) or a headstrong inventor that moves his family from the United States to the jungles of Central America (The Mosquito Coast). Dead Poets Society (1989) continues this thematic preoccupation with a shy student spending his senior year of high school at a conservative all-boys prep boarding school in the 1950s where he falls in with a tight-knit group of colorful students and is in turn taught by the new English teacher whose unconventional methods are alien to the traditional ways of the school.

Right from the opening credits, Weir immerses us in the stuffy, authoritative atmosphere of Welton Academy where its students literally carry its ideals a.k.a. the Four Pillars (tradition, honor, discipline, excellence) on banners into chapel with all the pomp and circumstance befitting such an esteemed institution. Like new student Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), we are immersed in this foreign world and watch as he tries to adapt to and make sense of it all. He starts off as an inexperienced blank slate for Neil Parry (Robert Sean Leonard), the artistically-inclined student (despite his strict father’s wishes), and his friends – Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), the strictly-by-the-book type, Gerard Pitts (James Waterston), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), the romantic, and Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), the rebel who’s up for anything – to imprint upon. They even have their own version of the Four Pillars: travesty, horror, decadence, and excrement.

Their first class with Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) is a memorable one as he takes them out of the classroom and into the hall. He quotes Walt Whitman, evokes the phrase carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) and gets them to look at old photographs of students in the trophy case to give an indication of their own mortality and to inspire them to also seize the day. For a brief but pivotal spell, Keating gets his students to think about English literature in a different way than they are normally accustomed to and this starts with having them rip out the introduction to their textbook that posits poetry should be tracked like a graph with its two axises being the poem’s perfection rated against its importance, which then determines its greatness. Through humor, Keating exposes the absurdity of applying a mathematical formula to art. He forces his students to think about poetry differently through the shock tactic of tearing out pages of the book thereby tearing down their pre-conceived notions of how poetry should be studied. (more…)

Read Full Post »


by Sam Juliano

The upcoming week has been diagnosed as a real scorcher with temperatures expected in the 90’s, but the previous seven day span was marginally more tolerable.  As always it seems for most that the summer is moving along as a brisk pace, and the month of August lies on the horizon.  Many in our fraternity are away or are close to vacation departure.  I am myself engaged in the annual summer school program, which is now halfway complete.  Friday, August 7th will be the last day.

I have uncharacteristically curtailed theater movie viewings this summer for two reasons:  First off, the quality of the releases is disappointing (though summer is traditionally the weakest time of the year cinematic for films) and secondly I have taken on too heavy a burden for the Childhood/Adolescent Films Countdown that has caused a problem with setting aside time to write.  Just this coming week for example I have reviews due up for three successive days (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) will with plenty more in the coming weeks.  While I was happy to take on some films I love, I simply went overboard and am now paying the price.  It is virtually unheard of for Lucille and I to skip a Saturday night out.  The original plans as per Friday were to trek up to Joey’s in Hewitt to see one of our favorites musicians again, but my responsibilities interfered.  Ah well.

The countdown is moving along quite nicely with solid numbers and decent support.  As always the quality of the presentations has been first-rate, and the diversity of the choices as voted on by many impassioned film buffs has made for an enthralling show. (more…)

Read Full Post »

ponette 2

By Dean Treadway

Many movies in this countdown deal with children confronted with the horrors of humanity–wartime, racism, poverty, crime. Yet, in its own quiet way, Jacques Doillon’s diminutive Ponette is among the most powerful of them all, simply because it gets the details of childhood correct. It also never shirks away from the toughest images of abject grief. One should be warned: it’s pretty nigh impossible not to view this movie through a sheen of constantly falling tears. Victoire Thivisol, in the title role, was only four years old when the film was shot, and this must be regarded as a miracle. It’s tempting to read up on how Doillon actually elicited this highly emotional work from such a young soul, but to do so might spoil our impressions of Thivisol as a performer (she would take the 1996 top prize at the Venice Film Festival–as far as I know, the youngest actor to ever win any sort of major award). And this is deserved: by any measure, her Ponette is unforgettable.

The film is exceedingly, wonderfully simple. With a tiny cast on her forearm, Ponette is the survivor of a car crash that took her mother’s life. As the film begins, her father (Xavier Beauvois) is comforting her in her hospital bed, and getting ready to drive her back to a boarding school. He expresses anger at his deceased wife–one senses that their relationship was on the skids anyway–while Ponette is still unable to accept that her mother is gone forever. As a parting show of love, she gives her daddy her teddy bear to keep, and he gives her his watch, which she sweetly keeps on her wrist throughout the picture. Doillon then follows this girl, with his camera wisely never lifting above her eyeline, as she struggles to come to terms with her loss.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once broke down the approach of death into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. One can see each of these stages illustrated here in Ponette’s journey, too, never with a heavy hand and in very much the same order. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes have her on the playground with her classmates, navigating this process. The film is filled with talk of God and Jesus, and Heaven–both the adults and the kids indulge in this–and we get the sense that Ponette is alternately comforted, confused and infuriated by some of this stuff (at one point, she chides a teacher for feeding her lies). One bossy girl sends Ponette on a playground obstacle course where the ground is a lava pit of Hell, and where there are only scattered islands of safety to which to jump. Her nominal “boyfriend” Mathias listens as she expresses her mind-twisting sadness, and then he kisses her cheek, comforting her in a scene of such aching intimacy that we’re both amused and relieved when he decides to give her his most prized possession: a Batman toy. “You’re nutty, but nice,” he says. All of this dovetails in a superb scene where Mathias and Carla decide to give Ponette one final test, exiling her to a trash bin for five minutes, to replicate the feeling of death and to strengthen her bravery. Just when we think the film is being unimaginably cruel, her friends find pity for the weeping Ponette and rescue her, excitedly telling her she’s passed muster (and Doillon even finds it possible to wring some laughs from the situation). (more…)

Read Full Post »

sounder 1

by Sam Juliano

William H. Armstrong’s Sounder won the 1970 Newbery Medal and was in short order adapted for the screen.  The story focused on African-American sharecroppers living and working in 1933 Louisiana at the height of the Great Depression, and was helmed by the former blacklisted director Martin Ritt, whose specialty was intimate, homespun southern dramas, of which Hud (1963) was the most celebrated.  Though there are some significant differences between the novel and the film, most of what is presented on screen is faithful to the source material.

The Morgans – Nathan, Rebecca and the children David Lee, Earl and Josie May are barely scraping by as sharecroppers for an uncompromising store owner, Mr. Perkins, who also owns the shanty and the land they inhabit.  As the film’s credits unfold, the father and oldest son hunt for coon.  The motivation isn’t recreational indulgence, but to have that rarest of commodities – meat on the table.  After a chase through the woods, assisted by the family’s beloved mixed breed coon hound, Sounder.  The father misses his target, but comes home to an understanding wife who still ladles out soup, shrugging off yet another episode of hunting futility.  Nathan is bitter that the family’s rigorous labor is accomplished solely to make the smug Perkins richer, while they all flirt with starvation.  The next morning Rebecca finds a ham and some sausage in the kitchen, which she promptly prepares, asking no questions.  The origin of the culinary windfall is painfully clear, but the delighted family indulge.  Rebecca asks David where he was the previous night, and the father, in the tradition of Jean Valjean answers “I did what I had to do.”

David attends school, and is relegated to the back of the classroom with other black children.  He later brings his siblings along for a visit to the kindly Mrs. Rita Boatwright, a laundry customer of Rebecca, who works overtime to supplement the family’s meager income.  Compassionate and without a prejudicial bone in her body, Mrs. Boatwright lends David her copy of The Three Musketeers, recommending that they discuss it when he is done.  The kids later gleefully witness their father pitch a winning baseball game.  Then disaster strikes when Nathan is arrested and handcuffed by Sheriff Young and his deputy for stealing the ham from a neighbor.  Sounder breaks loose from David’s hold and runs after the sheriff’s truck, as the deputy takes aim with his shotgun.  Just as he shoots, Nathan interferes by jerking his leg to prevent a fatal shot.  Sounder is bloodied and limps off into the woods as David tries to follow.  He eventually loses the pursuit.  Rebecca leaves to walk many miles to see her husband in the jail, but is told by the Sheriff that black woman are forbidden to visit their jailed husbands.   She stops by the general store to exchange walnuts for the ingredients to bake a cake where Perkins reprimands her for her husband’s bout with the law, telling her it made him look bad.  He tells Rebecca that her and her family must do the cropping on their own if Nathan is not released by the spring, and Rebecca agrees with some veiled sarcasm about their obligations to Perkins. (more…)

Read Full Post »

a_christmas_story_13 (2)

By Patricia Perry

Without Jean Shepherd, there would be no Christmas Story—and the movie resonates so strongly because he had a unique talent for making his audience feel like his stories were their own.” –  Chris Heller writing In The Atlantic, 12/24/2013.

With that observation, Heller sums up the lasting appeal of A Christmas Story in a neat little nutshell.  Sheppard was the screenwriter and, just as memorably, the voice-over narrator of this 1983 holiday favorite which was loosely based on his own Depression-era Indiana childhood. But his radio shows, stories, and their PBS American Playhouse adaptations had already earned him a devoted cult following in the years before A Christmas Story found its widespread audience.

Certainly, the Perry family always felt as if Shepherd and his stories belonged especially to us.

My brother and I spent our childhood absorbing my father’s enthusiasms for a select group of cultural icons  in whose work we were so thoroughly immersed that they felt almost like members of our family.   It was a distinguished fraternity, including the likes of Peter Sellers, John Cleese, Stan Kenton, Louis Armstrong, and – in a very special place of honor – Jean Shepherd. Dad’s affinity for his stories was largely rooted in their common life experience; he and Shepherd were born just a few years and few miles apart in the northwest corner of the Hoosier state and, in way or another, had covered a lot of the very same ground.  But it was also rooted in Dad’s unfailing instinct for finding and appreciating good comedy. Sheppard’s style and voice – folksy, funny, given to wild exaggeration and barely suppressing a giddy enjoyment of his own storytelling talents – was infectious comedy gold. (more…)

Read Full Post »

empire 4

empire of the sun

by Sam Juliano

Huna blentyn ar fy mynwes
Clyd a chynnes ydyw hon;
Breichiau mam sy’n dynn amdanat,
Cariad mam sy dan fy mron;
Ni cha’ dim amharu’th gyntun,
Ni wna undyn â thi gam;
Huna’n dawel, annwyl blentyn,
Huna’n fwyn ar fron dy fam.

-Verse #1, “Suo Gan”, Wales, circa 1800

The celebrated critic Andrew Sarris, who previously had little good to say about Steven Spielberg, reversed himself in a now famous assessment of 1987’s Empire of the Sun, which the scribe rapturously proclaimed the best film of the year:  “I was stirred and moved on a scale I had forgotten existed.  The film is a fusion of kinesthetic energy with literary sensibility, pulse-pounding adventure with exquisitely delicate sensitivity.”

This glorious epic of heroism and loss of innocence is my personal favorite of all Spielberg’s films and one of the greatest pictures of the 80′s.  I well remember going on a tangent back in those days, seeing the film over and over in theaters and securing permission from my district’s Board of Education for a school field trip for seventh graders. Christian Bale’s arresting performance may still be his finest ever, the use of the Welsh hymn ‘Suo Gan’ still brings goosebumps, and Allen Daviau’s breathtaking cinematography indelibly orchestrates Spielberg’s rapturous images. The film had to compete that same year -with John Boorman’s masterpiece Hope and Glory, which broached much of the same subject matter and same period, and it was bumped for the big nomination at Oscar time in favor of the Boorman’s work, though the National Board of Review handed over their Best Picture and Best Director prizes to the film and Spielberg.

Based on the autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun revolves around the early teenage years of  a young English boy named Jamie Graham, who is living in China with his wealthy parents in the privileged Shanghai International Settlement.  The father is a British diplomat, and the young boy is hopelessly spoiled and afflicted with an entitlement malady.  He even tells the family’s Chinese maid that she ‘must do as she is told’ after she initially objects to him eating cookies before bedtime in their lavish, sprawling home, which showcases manicured landscaping and an in ground swimming pool.  While the boy can’t be held to task by the implications of racism in his precocious declaration -his behavior is after all a product of the socially condescending era he was reared in – his parents apparently balk at studious intervention at all turns, no doubt because the servants are seen as lower class, and thereby subject to obedience.  Ballard, who was exceedingly pleased with the film -he made a cameo in the costume party segment- endured the events depicted in the film, which of course was based on his writing. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Wild Boys of the Road 1

by Judy Geater

The long shots panning over crowds of nameless children are the most haunting thing about Wild Boys of the Road. ‘600,000 Children’ proclaims the original trailer in huge letters – but, from reading about the Depression era, it seems as if the real numbers of kids taking the road were even higher than that.

Seeing the weary lines of men moved on from town to town is grim enough in Heroes for Sale, another film made by director William A Wellman for Warner in the same year. But the world of Wild Boys is if anything even bleaker, because this time it’s penniless kids (girls as well as boys, despite the film’s title) who are being driven from one place to another. They risk injury and even death as they leap aboard moving freight trains, and have to beg for food before sleeping rough in shanty towns beside rubbish dumps.

If this is a “coming of age” film, it’s a cruel version. Growing up has to happen all too fast, as the teenagers are forced to realise they can’t rely on anyone or anything for support. Sometimes portrayals of hoboes suggest there is something romantic about a life on the move –  but there is no romance in the struggle faced by the kids in this film. There are some lighthearted moments,  but the prevailing mood is one of bleakness. Especially shocking are the scenes which show adults turning against the children and trying to drive them out, as in one sequence where the firefighters turn hoses on them.

It’s often claimed that most Hollywood films in the early 1930s served up escapism. But, although the glossier musicals and comedies may be remembered better now, there were many gritty dramas which did address the realities of the day. Especially from Warner, and especially from Wellman. His astonishing run of powerful dramas in the pre-Code period didn’t pull many punches, except in the jarringly upbeat endings which were sometimes forced on him by the studio, as in this picture. (more…)

Read Full Post »


Screen cap from Bernard Wicki’s masterful German war film ‘The Bridge’, recently released on Criterion blu ray.

by Sam Juliano

Depending on your taste in weather the past week has either been excrutiatingly hot or markedly beautiful in and around the Big Apple. Certainly, for the most part the humidity has been low, allowing a scorching hot sun to exert minimal discomfort for those spending much of their time outdoors.  For those less adventurous, there is always the allure of air conditioned at home film viewings, or local trips to the theaters.  In any event, it does seem like the summer is moving along with mid July imminently at hand.  Some in our fraternity are preparing for their long awaited vacations, and I wish all a great time.

Here at Wonders in the Dark the Greatest Childhood/Adolescent Films Countdown has completed three full weeks.  Comments and page views have been consistently fine, with a few instances of excellence.  As was the case with past countdowns, there was one film that remained unclaimed, meaning no review was posted.  It doesn’t appear that this are instance will be happening again during the countdown.  The writing has been first-rate and the films themselves an honor to consider for any countdown.

Lucille, Sammy, Danny and I attended the ‘First Annual Children’s Book Celebration” in the Queens Museum, located in Flushing on the grounds of the 1964 World’s Fair (which I attended as a ten-year old Lincoln School student) on Saturday afternoon from 12 to 4. The museum is situated a very short distance from CitiField and the Corona Park Tennis Courts. We met the renowned author illustrator and FB frie Sergio Ruzzier and the Caldecott Honor winning artist David Ezra Stein among others, and strolled the grounds near the famed World’s Fair Unisphere. Danny, an aspiring artist himself, drew on the public canvas inside. A fabulous NYC map was displayed along a wall. Ruzzier’s new fantastic work TWO MICE is due out in September! (more…)

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »