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Archive for May, 2019

HARVEY WALLINGER - title 2

By Robert Hornak

A slight detour into nonsense.

I gather that Allan, if not a Woody Allen fan, per se, at least respected his work since I see he put a dozen of the prolific filmmaker’s movies on his list of “5,000 best screen works” on this very site. This may be thin justification for my entry in this year’s AFOFF, but there’s also some justification in light of my pick’s ubiquitous omission from nearly every corner of Allenalia, a rare political jab from “not essentially a political comedian” directly to Dick Nixon’s flummoxed jowls.

Despite his sometimes claim to political agnosticism, certain moments of commentary survive in Woody lore, namely his Woody Allen Looks at 1967 television special, from that year, wherein he spars with a particularly game William F. Buckley, Jr., or any number of his standup sideswipes: “I took some time off to write. I was working on a non-fiction version of the Warren Report.”), to the stammering quip he gives rally-speaker Alvy in Annie Hall: “I dated a woman working in the Eisenhower administration and I thought it was ironic, cause…I was trying to do to her what he’s been doing to the country for eight years.” Most of Allen’s politics is scattered over just a handful of examples, while Harvey Wallinger remains his most potent concentration of full-frontal political satire.

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by Adam Ferenz

The late, great Allan Fish, to whom this festival is dedicated, was a scholar not just of film but of television, which he saw as intrinsically linked. Indeed, my ongoing work on the greatest programs in television history, owes a great debt to his encouragement and generosity, and it is because of that that I once again selected television works for my selection for the Festival.  Both of these essays have been published here before. The following films harken back to an era when the BBC was much more adventurous, yet at the same time, much more educational and cultural minded.  It is no coincidence that some of the great directors of the past fifty or sixty years, got their start on the “small” screen. We are often  reminded of people like Sydney Lumet and Sam Peckinpah. We forget that talents like Ken Russell, Alan Clarke and Peter Watkins were known as much for their television work-if not, in the case of Clarke, almost entirely their television work-as what was released in the cinemas. Here are two of the best from a bygone era in British Telly, something the subject of this festival would no doubt strongly approve. And perhaps, one day, we can see a proper release of Dance Of the Seven Veils.  Fingers crossed.

Dance of the Seven Veils

Ken Russell did many crazy movies during his career, with The Devils often cited as his most insane work, and that is hard to argue. Unless one has seen this film, which is impossible to find in an un-bowdlerized edition-as the only available copies are not properly color timed and still have time stamps on them-which makes properly assessing this somewhat difficult. Telling the story of Richard Strauss, the film was part of a BBC series of programs, directed by Russell, in which he tackled major figures from classical music. His final film for the BBC, and for television, this film can be seen as a bold “fuck you and goodbye forever” from its director. (more…)

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by Sachin Gandhi

I have selected Francesco Rosi’s 1963 film Hands Over the City (Le Mani sulla città) because it is a film that feels contemporary despite being released almost 6 decades ago. Given the film’s topic of corruption and urban sprawl, it will always feel contemporary as long as politicians spend more time slinging mud at their rivals and lying to protect their crimes while letting innocent civilians suffer. The words “urban sprawl” are part of our everyday language yet it was Rosi’s film that gave an incisive look into how such a situation could occur. The city in Rosi’s film is his beloved Naples but as the film dives into the close connection between city planners, politicians, land developers and businessmen, it becomes evident that there is a universal aspect to the film.

The opening shots of Hands Over the City begin with a few aerial shots of Naples which highlight the city as a maze of buildings. After the opening minutes, we learn that it will get worse. That is because we are shown an informal meeting between a few businessmen who all want to profit from fast land development. The city council is about to propose expanding along the city’s core, which makes sense from an urban development point of view. But these businessmen and land developers want to build outside the city because the land is cheap and they can earn more profits in the future. The businessmen can get away with this because one of the leading land developers is also on the city’s board and he has a lot of friends on the council. The promise of fast money is enough to swing the votes in his direction. (more…)

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Given that the artwork of this years festival is more personal to Allan’s taste, I figured my pick should follow suit to officially kick Allan Fish OFF 2019! ‘Kick’ seems an apt word, what with the subject matter of my pick for this year. You’ll recall that in years past I’ve used my pick not only to highlight works that I personally love, but that also say something about how I became, and remained, friends with Allan over the several years that I knew him. In 2017 it was Final Cut Ladies and Gentlemen, a kaleidoscopic film whose creation was entirely from old, classic film clips collaged together to form an entirely new narrative. Its purpose in selection obvious; Allan was a man of few peers in his encyclopedic knowledge of film history, watch the film rush past you I compared to conversing with Allan about film, his brain making seamless connections across genre, era, region, and everything in between. While last year, in selecting the Italian comedy classic The Icicle Thief, I moved more towards narrative cinema. But again, a work very much on the nature of watching and interacting with movies. It appeared that in both instances I was sticking to the object that tied Allan and I in the first place: watching movies obsessively.

But, this year I thought differently. (more…)

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Welcome to this, the third annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival (AF OFF 2019)! The festival will begin on Tuesday, May 28th (Allan’s 46th birthday) with a post by me, Jamie, and will (potentially) end on Saturday, June 8th, with a concluding post by Sam Juliano. As with the festivals for the previous two years, we’ll have additional participants honor our late, great film aficionado Allan Fish by curating their own day in the film festival hosted by the site that Allan and Sam called home (and still do), Wonders in the Dark. 

In selecting their work for their specified day, the rules will follow previous years; each day will see a new chairman host the festivities and select a film that is available to be watched by anyone, online for free, from a popular streaming site (youtube, vimeo, dailymotion, etc.). The host for that day will decide how the film they chose will be presented; an essay, a sparse teaser introduction, or ‘other’ (the creativity seen on the blogosphere for film commentary knows no bounds as we all know). Thus, conceivably the film festival could be nearly real; people anywhere on the globe watching the same film, at roundabout the same time. (Note: Any type or genre of film can be chosen, as well as films of any length.) (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

Alexander Payne is part of an exciting wave of filmmakers who grew up during the 1970s and were subsequently influenced by the films from that era. His contemporaries include the likes of Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David O. Russell to name but a few. And like his fellow filmmakers, Payne eschews the Hollywood trend of placing an emphasis on special effects and trendy actors in favor of character-driven, comedy-drama hybrids populated with character actors like Laura Dern, Matthew Broderick and Kathy Bates.

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screen cap from Rudolf Nuryev biopic “The White Crow”

 

by Sam Juliano

The Third Annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival will launch this week on Tuesday, May 28th (on what would have been Allan’s 46th birthday) with an opening salvo by project founder Jamie Uhler.  It will continue for the coming week with seven consecutive submissions.  Wonders in the Dark is again quite proud to stage such a noble venture in honor of our beloved friend and mentor.  Thanks to all for your anticipated attention and to the writers for their selfless positive insights and creative energy.  The Cannes Festival’s Palme d’Or was won by a South Korean film, Parasite.  Monday is Memorial Day stateside.  We are wishing all our friends and readers a relaxing day.

Raunchy high school comedy “Booksmart”

The reviews have been wildly superlative, but I am not seeing this film as deserving of such glowing accolades. Yes it is refreshingly candid, emotionally honest and audaciously irreverent, nut the narrative eventually becomes tiresome and a few days after I watched the film I am finding very little of it memorable. I received a note from my revered 76 year-old former high school English teacher who reported to me that “If I were 15, 16 or 17 years old I might appreciate this film, but I am many decades removed and just couldn’t connect on any front.” While I can only stand with that criticism partially, I was only ably to muster limited applause for the presentation and most of that was for the wonderful actresses Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever and the irresistible Billie Lourd (Carrie Fisher’s daughter). A noteworthy debut for director Olivia Wilde and certainly an entertaining work, but I am not experiencing any staying power. (3.5 of 5) Seen Friday in Secaucus.

Shakespeare, Tolkien, Nuryev

William Shakespeare is my absolute favorite writer of all-time, J.R.R. Tolkien is a literary figure I greatly admire and Rudolf Nuryev is a fascinating cultural figure and spectacularly talented dancer but of the films recently made about them (“All is True”, “Tolkien”, “The White Crow”) only the latter on the volatile Russian dancer can be described as successful, though it too has some issues. Kenneth Branagh, the most dedicated and passionate Bard promoter of our time on film takes full advantage of dramatic license to re-imagine the final years of Shakespeare’s life, especially focusing in on his relationship with his daughter and his sustained grief over the childhood death of his only son, Hamnet, the twin of Judith with whom the Bard sustained domestic quarrels with. Speculation runs high but the film is dramatically cumbersome, Judi Dench is way too old for her role as Anne Hathaway and there is an odd lack of immediacy in the screenplay. Only Zac Nicholson’s autumnal cinematography hits the mark, though Branagh is an admirable Will, far more “in the skin” than his lamentable Hercule Poirot. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

“Many surfers ride summer and winter, but the ultimate thing for most of us would be to have an endless summer – the warm water and waves without the summer crowds of California.” – Bruce Brown

The Endless Summer (1966) is considered by many surfers and surfing aficionados to be the Citizen Kane (1941) of surfing films. While it certainly wasn’t the first, for its time Bruce Brown’s film was the most ambitious, well-made and popular one of its kind. The Endless Summer not only changed the general public’s view of surfing but it also paved the way for countless films about the sport. However, none of them have quite been able to convey the carefree attitude and sheer joy of surfing like Brown’s film – not even his own sequel, The Endless Summer II (1994) or the film by his son Dana entitled, Step Into Liquid (2003). 

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Scottish documentary “Scheme Birds”

by Sam Juliano

Following is a listing and short commentaries for my Top 15 Feature Films of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, which concluded two weeks ago:

  1.  Scheme Birds (documentary; Scotland)  The final day of the festival included a screening of the raw and searing Scottish, narrative-styled documentary, directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellimor Hallin, which is a metaphorical, poetic and sensory coming of age tale in an impoverished Scottish hamlet where blistering indictment of the Scottish welfare system plays out. A piercing voiceover narration and searing visuals make a powerful, unforgettable statement.
  2. Meeting Gorbachev (documentary, USA)  Another Werner Herog documentary tour de force on the famed Nobel Prize winning, now 88 year-old former leader of the Soviet Union, a reformer who promoted ‘glasnost’ (openness) and one committed to ending the Cold War.  Gorbachev was the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union before the communist government was replaced.  Herzog’s probing investigation in fascinating interviews and his ever-present black humor (notable in three successive funerals for aging Soviet leaders) make for one of the best documentaries of recent years.
  3. The Place of No Words (narrative, UK) A unique and creative feature which takes viewers into another dimension, one that seamlessly blends fantasy and realism to answer the age-old question, “what happens after one dies?” A father battles a terminal illness, but utilizes the time he has left to transport his young son (Bodhi Palmer in an extraordinary performance) into a wooded hamlet where monsters and menacing creatures meet their travel at all turns. Filled with visual wonderment and underlined by a lovely score, the films build valid emotion in a world where the human spirit emerges triumphant.
  4. The Apollo (documentary, USA) is a rousing celebration of one of the nation’s most beloved and influential landmarks. A stirring investigation of black America directed by Roger Ross Williams is an electrifying and soulful history of the 85 year-old theater on 125th that was closed, rescued, closed again and rescued again (by the state) after decades of hosting some of the most amazing acts in black music like “Amateur Night,” Motown groups and soloists, budding childhood stars like Stevie Wonder, James Brown, who was waked in the theater and whose music was a guiding light and even a charismatic appearance by Barack Obama. Everything in African-American music stopped here, and Williams does a fabulous job integrating and encapsulating the advent of the civil rights movement and how economics will always chart the long term course of any entertainment entity. Never less than deeply moving and informative this revered institution could hardly have been given a more accessible and impassioned treatment.
  5. 17 Blocks (documentary, USA) An unconscionable tragic act transformed a home movie-styled family chronicle into an urban exploration of how those shattered by the unspeakable can turn around their own lives and pick up the creative baton. A chance meeting at a Washington D.C. basketball court launches a decades long friendship and video investigation of a family under siege from the urban maladies of drug abuse, poverty and violence. Director Davy Rothbart developed a profound relationship with the Sanford family and helped aspiring filmmaker Emmanuelle hone his own skills until in an instant the their world came crashing down. The film’s title identified the distance from the blighted neighborhood and the Capital rotunda, but the irony of course is that any semblance of normality and safety is many miles from fruition. One of the best films of the festival this naked and heartfelt work leaves you gutted. There is a sense of urgency projected by the unrefined footage and inconsistent sound, but this tends to heighten the realism.
  6. Luce (narrative, USA)  Directed by Julius Onal, and starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, this high school drama proposes that the audience serve as jury in a subversive story about a dynamic and personable African-American (the adoptive son of white parents) who is under surveillance by a school guidance counselor (Octavia Spencer) who si convinced of the boy’s guilt.  A superbly written and subtly directed piece of work.
  7. Gay Chorus Deep South (documentary, USA)  300 choral singers from San Francisco travel to the deepest southern states to forge some common ground and erase a good measure of the hate and bigotry that made a comeback in the last few years for obvious reasons. Some individual stories of chorus members ostracized by their family and their church, there are some achingly poignant human moments and several musical segments are extraordinarily moving. Directed by Charles Rodrigues, the film captured the coveted Audience Award for Best documentary of the festival.
  8. House of Hummingbird  (narrative; South Korea) This acute coming of age Korean drama may be the most beautifully photographed film of the festival and yesterday it won Best International Narrative film from the jury as well as Best Cinematography. The focus is a 14 year-old girl and a dysfunctional family and the long, elegiac, multi-layered film by Kim Bora is remarkably observational and impressively acted.
  9. Our Time Machine (documentary, China) is a superlative and brilliantly shot documentary on puppet makers and a family’s aging patriarch that is culturally captivating and visually rapturous.  The Best Cinematography Award the Tribeca jurors bestowed upon it was richly deserved.
  10. Changing the Game (documentary, USA) Mack Beggs won two state wrestling championships in Texas, but at the same time he is a transitioning from female to male in this riveting investigation of the social constrictions facing transgender athletes. The superlative documentary also features two others who transition from male to female and how their families and society at large respond to the metamorphosis. The stories are intertwined, with Beggs’ is the most fascinating but all work and support the theme beautifully. The bigoted Texas lawmakers’ insistence on Beggs wrestling other girls as per “gender at birth” sets off controversy on all fronts. The director and cast all showed up at this premiere screening and engaged in a captivating Q & A.
  11.  Dreamland (narrative, USA)  Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, this revisionist, dust bowl “Bonnie and Clyde” styled crime drama is taut and entertaining even with some familiar narrative and twists.  Eugene Evans, a naïve Texas teen who ran off with on-the-law beauty Allison Wells and wound up etched beside her legend in history is the basic premise and Margot Robbie and the film’s cinematographer are luminous.
  12.  For They Know Not What They Do (documentary, USA) is Daniel Karslake’s powerful and poignant follow-up to his award-winning 2008 “For the Bible Tells Me So” and it features a quartet of gay and trans-gendered teenagers who receive varying baptisms under fire in this quest for acceptance and love from their initially shocked families. The deeply moving film includes the Pulse nightclub massacre which affects one of the gay boys, trans-gendered Sarah McBride’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention and the decent of one teenager into drugs and an early passing after failed conversion therapy.
  13. One Child Nation (documentary, China/USA) Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, this largely disturbing examination of China’s infamous one-child police in practice from 1979 till 2015 paints a bleak portrait of forced abortions, abandonment, home destruction and its permanent impact of Chinese society and those children growing up in other countries with no way to trace their lineage. The aching and absorbing documentary won the Jury Prize and Sundance and is making the rounds and deeply affecting those who can’t even fathom how such an edict could even be instituted for whatever its tactical benefits would be in an overcrowded nation. The penalties enacted against those breaking the law are unconscionable and in some cases parents must participate in the government’s harshest resolves. The film is impressively crafted and makes harrowing use of a chart of the endless number of children who are de-personalized and are identified only by number.
  14. Noah Land (narrative, Turkey) by Cent Erturk never really establishes a central focus and it clearly borrows heavily from Turkish master Ceylan, but still offers up a mostly intense drama about ownership and funeral rites in an impoverished village.
  15. White as Snow (narrative, France)  Isabelle Huppert plays a wicked stepmother in this tale of initial innocence morphing into carnal sexuality in a powerful tale of feminism based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Our young protagonist Claire is a stunning beauty who retires her tame demeanor to revel in her sexuality and must ultimately decides between her seven conquests and her re-appearing caretaker. A slowly enveloping drama beautifully filmed sensually underscored. Directed by Anne Fontaine.

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© 2019 by James Clark

  What we see, right at the beginning of this characteristically amazing film, is a one-of-a-kind head’s up: “Not For Pleasure Alone.” That is to serve as an irony about the standard disclaimer that anything but mainstream diversion (“pleasure alone”) would be coming from opinions not held by the suits. There is, in our film today, Fanny and Alexander (1982), whereby a Jewish magician (in Sweden, at the beginning of the twentieth century) rescues two children from the clutches of savage villainy, by way of wailing and making fists, to an effect of the eponymous figures transporting from a chest on a first floor to a room on the second floor. And, after the display to the suspicious jailor, back they come to the chest and away they go, out the door, supposedly (to the meany) just an empty chest purchased by an antiquarian. Since when did Bergman go in for such deus ex machina naivete? Actually, never. The “spring,” in The Virgin Spring (1960), has been framed as self-delusion, while other eyes are not fooled. Here, however, within a torrent of complex, sensual conflict, that little stunt marks the matter as being peculiarly assailed by pleasure merchants and their devotees. Hollywood/ Disney deliberately polluting any rare, mature effort as to a rich and devastating line of creative crisis.

Our task, then, is to set in relief the thoroughgoing (and “punishing”) vectors which Bergman had, to that point, masterfully deployed in many previous films, in order to glean this, more recent, discovery. We begin, therefore, with the opening mis-en-scene, coming to us as branded by the phrase, “Not for Pleasure Alone.” In close-up, a young boy manipulates a toy theater (with a castle back drop) in the sense of an addition to a composition. The figure, now in question, is a woman in finery, perhaps a queen. The way the boy deposits his toy reminds us of a move on a chess board. His quizzical visage goes on to establish a little hedgerow, or a little forest, like the forest which Jof and Marie (in the film, The Seventh Seal [1957]) negotiated with much stress and courage, with madness and a cataclysm all around. Jof, a travelling minstrel/ dancer/ circus clown in the 12th century, had dedicated to his baby boy the rare essence of  becoming an acrobatic genius and a juggler putting forth an “impossible” trick. The couples’ odyssey would be in stark contrast to the knight, Block, riveted to a chess game, supposedly with Death itself, where the prize of winning would be entering “Pleasure Alone,” in heaven—the reward of the moguls like Block and like those assertive Hollywood types who would settle only for maudlin payoffs, pleasure alone! (more…)

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