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Archive for July, 2019

By J.D. Lafrance

Ever since his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino has made a point of casting actors that were successful but whose marketability has waned over time only to be marginalized by Hollywood. Once leading men, they became character actors or starred in B-movies. He doesn’t care about what’s trendy and has sought out these forgotten actors with the belief that they can be great again if given the right material – think of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction (1994) or Robert Forster in Jackie Brown (1997) or David Carradine in the Kill Bill films. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) is the culmination of Tarantino’s fascination with these kinds of actors as its two protagonists are an actor and his stunt double who have been pushed to the margins with one trying to get back into Hollywood’s good graces while the other has made peace with his lot in life. The irony is that Tarantino has cast two of the biggest movie stars in the world in these roles – Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The relationship between these two characters lies at the heart of the film – a sprawling, yet intimate epic set in Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s with multiple storylines whose end result is a love letter to that time and place.

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by Sam Juliano

Right now I can’t help but reference this song from Steel Pulse featured in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing:

Otherwise, it is business as usual under the air conditioned interiors as we approach the dogs days of August and the lead in (can you believe it?) to another September and school year.  I will turn 65 in four weeks, and like all others in my predicament I can only ponder where the time has gone.  But heck, why even consider pouting, we must enjoy the time we do have and the things left to negotiate.  This past week Jim Clark posted a stunning essay on Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum and J.D. Lafrance waxed lyrical on the 1996 blockbuster Mission Impossible.  

***SPOILERS***) All the pre-viewing signs were there. Glowing advance reports, Oscar hyperbole, universal acclaim at Metacritic with a 54 favorable, 4 mixed and 0 negative consensus including nearly ten 100 grades, one of which was posted by the ever-discerning SLANT magazine. Yet this nearly 3 hour opus was seemingly sure to disturb many with its mise en scene set in and around the locale of the depraved Manson family murders of 1969. As an insecure fading film star Leonardo DiCaprio is dynamic as is Brad Pitt as his buddy-buddy stunt double. The two men establish a winning camaraderie during the hippie era, chain-smoking regular and acid cigarettes, driving around the era’s cars which glide by neon signs at a time when counter-culture was moving in. The film is nearly three hours long but you can’t feel it, and Tarantino provides a visceral intensity to a bloody finale that far eclipses what Scorsese gave us in “Taxi Driver.” Historical revisionism has never been so satisfying when the director gives the middle finger to the cretinous Manson followers and extreme violence has never taken on such hilarity in execution and dialogue. The flame thrower is a particular gas. The supporting cast is exemplary in this black comedy extraordinaire.  Tarantino’s stamp was all over this film in every way, shape and form. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

A lot was riding on Mission: Impossible (1996) for Tom Cruise. Not only was it the first film he produced (in addition to starring), it was also his first attempt to kick start his own film franchise. What better way to do this than resurrecting a classic television show from the 1960s? Cruise, always the calculated risk taker, wisely surrounded himself with talented people: Robert Towne (among others) co-wrote the screenplay, Brian De Palma directing and the likes of Jon Voight, Jean Reno, and Vanessa Redgrave in the cast. At the time, the James Bond franchise was in a transitional period and didn’t produce a new film until the following year. Despite a well-publicized troubled production, rife with clashing egos, Mission: Impossible was a huge box office success spawning a franchise that continues to produce installments.

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by Sam Juliano

At Union Hall in Paramus, my youngest brother Paul Juliano was elected the new Bergen County Chairman in a unanimous verdict on Wednesday evening in front of jubilant party faithful and office holders right down from Governor Phil Murphy to the State Democratic Chairman to State Senators and congressmen and finally the county committee persons who actually cast ballots to give Juliano his resounding mandate. The new chairman promised inclusion and diversity and continued success in a county presently controlled by Democrats in virtually every public office. Juliano’s family, friends and political associates celebrated his election with rousing speeches and sustained ovations in one of the biggest nights ever for the Borough of Fairview and southeast Bergen Democrats.

In the meantime those of us in the metropolitan region, in fact nearly everywhere stateside are mired in an oppressive heat wave that has had real-feel implications hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Here at Wonders in the Dark, James Clark and J.D. Lafrance published stupendous essays this past week with the former’s towering piece on Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, the latest in his monumental series on the French director.

Lucille and I managed to navigate the heat with two appearances in the theaters over the weekend.  The lush and visually striking alternative-point-of-view fueled Ophelia, brings a 400 year old celebrated play into feminine revision.  The writing isn’t always top-notch but the acting, particularly by Daisy Ridley as the titular character is superb as is the production design and stunning score by Steven Price.  For the most part I found the film haunting and mesmerizing. (thanks for the alert Marilyn Ferdinand!)  We caught the film Saturday night at the Tribeca Cinema.  On Sunday we took in Avi Nesher’s The Other Story, which chronicles a family divide between secular and orthodox in an Israeli conclave that compelling recalls the 1982 The Chosen, written by Chaim Potok. (more…)

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 © 2019 by James Clark

      These days, an old black and white film about God will find few takers. However, there is a still-practicing filmmaker, namely, Claire Denis, who pulls out all the stops to revisit such a vehicle. Is she a nun? Nope. Is she a God-fearing militant in favor of aid to the distressed? Nope. Is she a social scientist, tracking religious consequences through the ages? No, no, no. What Denis’ excitement pertains to, is the work of that mostly shunned movie, called, The Seventh Seal (1957), created by notable-no-longer filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), whose output engages the intrinsic disaster of piety and smarts. (The word, “intrinsic,” is crucial here. And as such, her perspective is problematic, not formulaic.) In addition to piety and smarts, that film spotlights a young couple of itinerant circus performers in the 12th century, the husband, Jof, agog with the possibility that their baby boy could become a dazzling acrobat, or a juggler, pulling off an “impossible” trick, the kind of trick only an oracle would imagine.

Intrinsic in the travelling folks’ itinerary, is the sentence of being left out of the lives who, if not making the world go round, making the world theirs. 35 Shots of Rum (2008) contemplates the hopes of Jof, almost a millennium shot forward. As such, our film today carries the special bonus of catching up to, once again, the bittersweet world of Jacques Demy and the musical muse of Demy’s soulmate, Michel Legrand (setting out the latter master’s magical transcendence by way of those deft swallows, the Tindersticks).

Diminutive Jof comes a cropper with the salt of the earth in a medieval beer hall, and, by way of putting a less embarrassing story in the mix, he tells a gathering at his caravan that he “roared like a lion” against the mob. Our protagonist today, Lionel, a Paris commuter train driver (far from Jof’s open road), is an African immigrant-widower who dotes on his adult daughter, Josephine, still living with him. The action here is pensive in a puzzling way. Whereas Jof and Marie are on the hook to circumvent various substantial evils (the plague, for instance), Lionel and Jo seem to lead a rather uneventful, mundane existence. Their reticence to speak (a less extreme strategy of the vow to silence, in Bergman’s, Persona [1966]), counting upon face and body language, becomes a form of poetry you could study for years. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

When Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983), a fast and loose remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave Classic A bout de souffle (1960), was released in theaters, it infuriated cineastes and film critics who couldn’t believe that the filmmaker had the audacity to remake such a highly regarded film with the likes of hunky actor Richard Gere and then-unknown actress Valerie Kaprisky, making her American debut. They couldn’t wrap their collective heads around McBride’s stylish reimaging of Godard’s film, updating it for the 1980s complete with ample nudity, numerous comic book references, and a rockabilly-heavy soundtrack that is as bold a cinematic statement today as it was back then.

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Soon-to-be-elected Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano and Governor Phil Murphy at Cliffside Park’s Villa Amalfi on Wednesday night.

by Sam Juliano

A rousing event held at the Villa Amalfi in Cliffside Park on Wednesday night attracted hundreds of the Democratic Party faithful who attended to toast my younger brother Paul Juliano, who will be elected to the top position (the Chairmanship) of New Jersey’s Bergen County, the state’s most populous and controlled unanimously by Democrats on Wednesday of this coming week (the 17th).  As my own tribute to Paul -though we speak numerous times every day- is the new Wonders in the Dark site banner which captures Paul and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy during the speech ceremony.  Many thanks to those who left comments last week and have reached me privately for the exceedingly kind words.

This past week J.D. Lafrance published a splendid review of Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man.  Essay writer extraordinaire James Clark will have his newest piece set to post in the next few days.

Lucille, Sammy, Jeremy and I took in two music-themed films last night at the Claridge Cinemas in Montclair. Neither was any kind of a masterpiece but I’d still recommend both, especially the country music drama “Wild Rose” which features an electrifying performance by Jessie Buckley as the former prisoner and Scottish mother of two living in Glasgow and dreaming of flying to Nashville.  Moderated by Bob Dylan’s son Jakob, the documentary “Echo in the Canyon” examines the Laurel Canyon music scene at the peak of the rock era but is oddly truncated and wandering. Still, those who revere the Beach Boys, Tom Petty, the Byrds, Eric Clapton, the Mamas and the Papas and other acts will as I did find much to admire and be ravishing and modestly enlightened with. (more…)

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One of the marks of a true auteur is someone that can take a director-for-hire job and make it their own. They are able to take a project that originated from a major studio and infuse it with their own personal style. Sometimes this works (The Untouchables) and sometimes it doesn’t (The Cotton Club). The 1990s was the decade of John Grisham movie adaptations. He was a criminal lawyer that began writing very popular crime fiction several of which were made into successful movies by esteemed filmmakers like Sydney Pollack (The Firm), Alan J. Pakula (The Pelican Brief) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Rainmaker). These directors were very prominent during the 1970s and began to fall out of favor with the studios during the 1980s. They took these paycheck gigs as a way to stay relevant in mainstream popular culture while also hoping to parlay their potential success into financing more personal projects.

Along came Robert Altman towards the end of the ‘90s who decided to try his hand with The Gingerbread Man (1998), based on an original story that Grisham himself adapted into a screenplay. Never one to follow a script too closely, Altman heavily reworked it and created his own unique spin on the material. When an audience test screening went badly, the studio went in and re-edited the film against Altman’s wishes and their version tested even worse. They finally agreed to release his version and promptly buried it thus ensuring that it would not do well at the box office. While certainly not Altman’s finest work, it is a curious cinematic oddity full of fascinating quirks that help it stand apart from other Grisham cinematic adaptations.

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Revolting though utterly brilliant horror film “Midsommar”

by Sam Juliano

Now the 4th is behind us and we move forward with scorching temperatures and air conditioner overtime.  Some of us are presently on vacation, others still attending to their regular employment.  Yours Truly is working the summer literature and writing enrichment program until Wednesday July 31st and then the one month of the year a break is awarded to us, though the dog days of August are normally the time heat is redefined.  This past week J.D. Lafrance gave us a terrific essay on Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, and Jim Clark will soon be posting his own addition in his great Ingmar Bergman series.

Extreme gore, terrifying images, a “Handmaid’s Tale” sensibility, and “Wicker Man” execution, nightmarish tapestries and a touch of dark humor collide in Ari (Hereditary) Aster’s unique horror film Midsommar, a tale of twisted revenge set in a remote Swedish village. The film is sometimes indescribably revolting yet visceral, sublime, atmospheric and undeniably brilliant. Florence Pugh is extraordinary! 4.5 of 5.0 methinks. Lucille and I saw it in Secaucus on Friday night and I have to admit it had me shaken.

The Beatles, Pavarotti and an Australian pelican

As I regard the Beatles as the greatest band of all-time from any country and Luciano Pavarotti as the most titanic voice I’ve heard in my lifetime, (I witnessed him three times at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Opera) I would have told anyone who predicted I’d like a slow-moving Australian drama about a boy and his pet Pelican Mr. Percival better than films about the music legends in serious need of psychiatric help. Yet there it is. The Down-Under drama, Storm Boy a bonafide tear jerker starring Geoffrey Rush and newcomer Finn Little is a shattering little film which is lovingly lensed and movingly performed, deserves wider distribution. I certainly liked the Pavarotti documentary by Ron Howard for a host of reasons, but it isn’t cohesive and could have been much better.

As to Yesterday there is charm but also a sense that the film’s time-travel novelty devise wears thin. Always fabulous though to hear some of the greatest songs ever written on-screen of course. Lucille and I spent our July 4th in the Montclair Claridge multiplex watching all three films in succession. NOTE: Sadly Storm Boy bombed at the box office, losing about 10 million for its independent distributor.

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by J.D. Lafrance

We all have Kathryn Bigelow to thank for the Keanu Reeves action movie star currently tearing it up in the John Wick franchise. It all started with Point Break (1991). It was generally panned by critics upon its release and performed modestly at the box office, spawning a minor cult following among action film fans. It is a great film but not in the traditional sense. No, it is a great cheeseball action flick riddled with clichéd dialogue, stereotypical characters and by-the-numbers plotting. It also has some pretty quotable dialogue, kick-ass action sequences involving daring bank heists, car chases, skydiving and, of course, breathtaking surfing footage – one of the film’s most important selling points. What was once viewed as a guilty pleasure, Point Break has aged like a fine wine and should be regarded as one of the best action films of the 1990s.

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