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Archive for December, 2019

by Sam Juliano

I’ll be spending the morning of New Year’s Eve (Tuesday) in a rather unusual place, as a result of lamentable scheduling that I was foolish not to contest.  Alas I will be drinking those deplorable laxatives on Monday night in preparation for a combined colonoscopy-endoscopy procedure which isn’t being done for any other reason other than it has been eight years since I last had one (colonoscopy) and maybe six since I had an endoscopy.  The latter is common for anyone like myself who is maligned with acid reflux (Gerd).  No big deal of course but definitely a bizarre bit of scheduling.

Jim Clark again posted his inspiring essay for the holiday season “Dylan Thomas, James Herriot and the Spirit of Christmas” at the site on Thursday.

Lucille, the boys and I spent Saturday evening taking in a splendid doo wop presentation by our friend’s group “Four Man Trio” at the Lakeside Restaurant in Wayne, and on Friday we drove down to Asbury Park for a pinball session at the waterfront Silverball Museum.

Two of the very best films of the year opened on Christmas Day and Lucille, the gang and I caught one of the greatest war films ever made (#2 WW I film behind “All Quiet on the Western Front”) at 9:20 on Xmas evening and by far the finest and most achingly sublime adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic novel “Little Women” yet from the renowned Greta Gerwig, chock full of spirited performances and writing on Thursday afternoon.

1917, directed by Sam Mendes based on a story told to him from his paternal grandfather is technically as adroit as “Dunkirk” but the film goes so much further in character development and narrative, and the final fifteen minutes are altogether shattering. The lead actor who plays Lance Corp. Schonfield (George MacKay) delivers a powerful, awards worthy turn, Roger Deakins’ searing cinematography is first-rate as is Thomas Newman’s haunting score, and the film’s single take gimmick is surprisingly successful. A gut wrenching experience with a well-earned tour de force of an ending.

Little Women represents a watermark in Gerwig’s career and for adaptations of the novel a new poll position placement. The lovely Saoirse Ronan aces her beguiling performance as “Jo” and the entire cast delivers such as Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern and Timothee Chalamet. Alexander Desplat’s score is lovely and a perfect fit for the material and the cinematography, production design and costumes conspire to fuel this engrossing screenplay (also by Gerwig) with ravishing period flavor. In my opinion this film is even better than the director’s previous “Ladybird” and her best work to date. Both films rate 5/5. I also thought the Boston Film Critics nailed it giving Ronan their Best Actress prize!

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by Sam Juliano

The most intrepid of canines was the ever-resourceful family handyman and space traveler Stanley who was the titular character in Jon Agee’s 2015 picture book It’s Only Stanley.  Peggy Rathman’s Caldecott Medal winner Officer Buckle and Gloria chronicled the unbreakable bond between a policeman and the dog who performed with him on his visit to schools to speak on safety.  In the cinema the loyal companion Parson Russell Terrier Uggie engineered a mad dash down a street to alert a policeman that his master was trapped in a house fire in Michel Hazanavicius’ 2011 Oscar Best Picture winner The Artist.  But the role of a dog in the life of a child can never be downplayed both for steady companionship during upbringing and for an emotional bond that often supersedes any other.  Veteran children’s book author-illustrator Sergio Ruzzier deliberately blurs the role of each protagonist in his latest early-age treasure Good Boy, which intimates a spiritual connection that rivals the deepest intimacy between a married couple, familial siblings, or the closest of friends.  in fact Ruzzier raises the ante in a story where daily activities, meals, inter-space travel and sleeping re-define the meaning of soulmate in the context of a boy and a dog who are not -in contradiction of the conventional wisdom- separated by species, physical size or age, but are wed by common purpose and incomparable compatibility.

Ruzzier, the Italian born classicist with duel citizenship who divides his time between the US and Italy is in the Caldecott hunt for the fifth time in six years.  With Good Boy he has produced what is surely by any artistic and conceptual barometer of measurement one of the finest works of 2016.  Like all the best creations, Good Boy is thought-provoking, elegant, and invested with the most vital, if rudimentary measure of advocacy for our youngest readers.  The book celebrates the power of friendship and the unlimited boundaries of the imagination. Once again Ruzzier’s colorful and sumptuous otherworldly tapestries evoke a European sensibility and some of his eccentric carnival scenes envision the surrealist cinema master Alejandro Jodorowsky, though framing the art as Felliniesque seems just as appropriate.  The creator of the charming story of forgetfulness, Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?, the melancholic tale of friendship, A Letter For Leo, the counting book in miniature, Two Mice, and his gem about the power of reading, This is Not a Picture Book Ruzzier again makes in intimate pitch to the youngest readers with stirring examples of personal interaction and to teachers and adult readers his singular art  Sharp-eyed viewers might see some persuasive comparisons with the art of renowned artists Leo Politi and Tomie DePaola, but on the other hand Ruzzier is an original whose work is far more singly identifiable. (more…)

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 © 2019 by James Clark

Our return to an old Christmas blog, from 2013, must (due to corporate regulations)stand without  the YouTube referred to.  But the point of two great writers at this season can’t be denied.

    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.” And after that, “tall tales… we told by the fire.” And it is at this point, instead of the perennial standbys, that there is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter that can’t be forgotten (just as Herriot’s once-only and never-forgotten Christmas outsider). Carolling in the night, Dylan and his friends take into their head to go to the front door of a “large home” (a place bringing to mind the homestead of Edward Scissorhands). The kids decide against the ethereal “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” in favor of “Good King Wenceslas.” Soon after starting, they were accompanied by “a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door, a small dry voice through the keyhole.” They ran away until they arrived at Dylan’s house, where they hoped that some jelly was left. An even tipsier Auntie Hannah inadvertently reminded him of the recent shock that was too hot to handle, in singing about “Bleeding Hearts and Death” and singing that her heart was like a bird’s nest—causing the sated revellers to laugh. In bed and ready to sleep, Dylan looked out at lights in windows and the music rising up from them, but only seeing those “on our hill.” There was “moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow.” There was “close and holy darkness.” And there was a sweep of love that proved impossible to brave. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The Wonders in the Dark staff (James Clark, J.D. Lafrance, Jamie Uhler) as well as Lucille and I would like to wish our dear friends and loyal readers a very Merry Christmas this coming Wednesday!  I always say the same thing, but isn’t it amazing how time flies.  We are on the cusp of another new year and we are a year older.  The site recently completed its eleventh year, another remarkable achievement.  This past year on a personal note had more than its share of heartbreaks and adversity.  We lost our 89 year-old Dad in October, our favorite pet, a cat named Dylan two weeks after that and Lucille had that frightful benign tumor radio surgery which was a success.  Here at the site we continue to receive extraordinary reviews from Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance as well as another year of Jamie Uhler’s fantastic horror fest writings and chairmanship of the annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival, which is moving towards its fourth year.  My ongoing Caldecott Medal Contender series -in its eighth year- is moving forward, albeit as a slower pace than in the past because of all the roadblocks I’ve mentioned.  I want to thank the reading community for the amazing comment and page view numbers that again have greeted the series.  We hope everyone has a peaceful and happy time for the end of the year festivities.  Lucille and I (along with Sammy and Jeremy) attended the annual holiday bash Saturday night in Butler, N.J. at Lucille’s sister’s home.

We saw three films in the theater this past week (one will actually be watched tonight, Richard Jewell, so I will return to this post to revise).    I’m mad. In all the years I’ve watched and sometimes reviewed movies for various publications dating all the way back to my college newspaper days I can’t remember an instance when I thought a film was tons better than a critical consensus as awful as that which greeted Tom Hooper’s “Cats” based on the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical. In short I really liked “Cats” and found the director’s phantasmagorical approach a perfect fit for the undisciplined material culled from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Film critics too often look down their noses at musicals, yet the far more uppity theater critics lavished much praise on the show, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical and ran for 18 years, most at the Winter Garden Theater where I witnessed this alluring and infectious hodgepodge of feline immersion four (4) times. After seeing some really extraordinary films over the past weeks I was due to see a dud and the vast majority of reviews are promising that “Cats” is exactly that. But no, put on the brakes. Hooper makes terrific use of London backdrops, and opens up the work to incorporate a bonanza of dance, ballet and song, with a few clear showstoppers like Jennifer Hudson’s “Memory”, “Mr. Mistoffeles,” “Macavity: The Mystery Cat,” “Shimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” and “Old Deutoronomy.” Francesca Hayward is absolutely smashing as Victoria, Ian McKellan is wonderful as Gus and Judi Dench is charming even with her non-existent singing voice. Laurie Davidson and Robbie Fairchild are splendid, though Taylor Swift is severely underused. Hooper is bold and takes some risks (not all of them work) but largely I found “Cats” a major surprise. Let the critics hate and use this film for their negative status quo but for some of the rest of us we can renew our vows in accepting how and why we loved this Broadway show in the first place. Oh yes, the cat fur CGI was effective and Hooper gets away with breaking every rule of narrative flow and continuity. On film this feat is tricky as opposed to the stage where a “revue” can be workable. The film is captivating! 4/5 with a half star upgrade still possible. Lucille, Sammy and I saw the film at the Teaneck multiplex Thursday evening. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Urban neighborhoods steaming with life, culture and creativity are too often the subject of misguided perception and racist profiling by those who make generalizations about high crime statistics and impoverishment.  Despite the hardships endured by those who are eternally making do with so little this is an environment where youthful imagination soars and artistic inclinations flourish.  It is a place where inspiration is wed to tenacity and single-mindedness.  Eight year-old Ava Murray resides in a Bronx neighborhood marked by ethic diversity and a hankering by its inhabitants to pursue their artist inclinations.  At her home she is always perplexed that the stories she hears from the television paint her neighborhood in a very poor light.  One incredulous story features a girl about her age being handcuffed for “breaking the rules” which as Ava’s mom explains to her is the result of her graffiti activity.  The youthful idealist, with a thirst for creativity and bereft of a mean bone in her body can’t come to terms with society putting a clamp on the urban beautification of her Bruckner Boulevard environs, a place the youngster observes as a “world of many colors and sounds”; shapes and sizes that are bright and bold.”

Ava is the central protagonist in a story of artistic fortitude in an urban hamlet where communal camaraderie and a singular purpose provides the inspiration for vocational advancement which is simultaneously impacted by a certainty of conviction that there is a spiritual kinship with artists, musicians, dancers and writers who rose out of their roots to make their mark in the world.  In I Can Write the World by Joshunda Sanders, with illustrations by Charly Palmer, Ava experiences the power of her fellow African-Americans in the New York City borough where Murderer’s Row played in the most famous of all baseball stadiums, one of the nation’s largest zoos sits in defiance of of its ultra-urban surroundings, and where rap and hip-hop music originated.  Ava and her family reside in the poorest Borough in the city, where the median family income is around $37.000, less than half that enjoyed by Manhattanites.  But as expressed so movingly in two previous Caldecott Honor books, A Chair for my Mother by Vera Williams and Tar Beach by Faith Ringold those with a free verse spirit, and a hankering to create can make claim on a wider universe than the constricted one some are eternally bound to and those with self-confidence and the ability to find the beauty and express their own voice in an area too often castigated for the same issues that plague all inner-city neighborhoods. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

The early 1990s marked the emergence of two independent filmmakers who were seen as possible heirs to Woody Allen’s cinematic legacy: Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) and Whit Stillman. The latter filmmaker, in particular, has often been cited in the same breath as Allen’s films. They both mine the same social strata — affluent, Upper East Side New Yorkers — for comedy. Stillman’s debut, Metropolitan (1990), is his most Allen-esque, right down to the simple opening credits sequence (using a font similar to the one Allen does in his films) accompanied by jazz music. Stillman’s characters, like Allen’s, also speak witty dialogue loaded with literary references. However, this is where the similarities begin and end. In Allen’s films, he presents upper class characters that are narcissistic and self-absorbed while Stillman tends to gently parody these qualities.

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by Sam Juliano

The cataract surgery is completed.  All went well but vision restoration is seemingly still a ways off.  Some people need two to three weeks for it to return and I am waiting (im) patinetly.  Ha!   This past Thursday I attended our annual teacher’s Xmas party in Carlstadt, New Jersey.  It was a fun time for all and a moment to unwind before the early Friday morning eye surgery.

This past week both Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance published banner reviews on Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg and Sidney Lumet’s Night Falls on Manhattan.  RIP Danny Aiello, a gentleman and wonderful actor who was iconic in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Lucille and I saw one film in theaters this week as things were too hectic to do more.  But we have one set for this evening and more later in the week.  We saw:

A Hidden Life *****   (Sunday)  Cinema 1

“A Hidden Life”: A Terrence Malick masterpiece

There is precedence when we apply the word “masterpiece” to a Terrence Malick film, but his newest work, a cosmic investigation into defiant heroism, based on a real story set in Nazi Austria is the most linear film the acclaimed director has made in quite some time. Yet this lyrical work set in a scenic Sound of Music-styled hamlet in northern Austria is nonetheless one of the director’s finest films and one of the top 2 or 3 I‘ve watched this year. Fueled by a piercing voice over narration, lovely cinematography by Jorge Widmar and music by James Newton Howard “A Hidden Life” relates the story of conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter who doggedly refuses to serve under Hitler while rebuffing numerous efforts from family and friends who contend his unwavering principals will bring him certain death. Like other Malick masterworks the film weaves an introspective spell. Lucille and I saw the film yesterday afternoon at the Cinema 1 on 3rd Avenue with friend Bill Kamberger.

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