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Archive for December, 2020

By J.D. Lafrance

Popeye (1980) is the film you get when the powers that be entrust a big budget, high-profile project to an idiosyncratic maverick like Robert Altman who proceeds to take the studio’s money and produces a fascinating cinematic oddity. Never one to play it safe, he enlisted fellow iconoclastic artists like musician Harry Nilsson to compose the score, acclaimed playwright Jules Feiffer to write the screenplay and cast comedian Robin Williams, in only his second film role and first starring one, as the titular character. Looking back at it now, it’s amazing that the film ever got made in the first place (it almost didn’t). It is also a powerful reminder of just how safe and formulaic these kinds of films have become over the years (one only has to look as far as Michael Bay’s Transformers movies). This is due in large part to publicized commercial failures like Popeye, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982), which resulted in Hollywood freezing out these darlings of 1970s American cinema in favor of successful producers like Joel Silver, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer who helped usher in a flashy style over substance that reflected the materialistic decade of the 1980s.

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by Sam Juliano

Today’s Monday Morning Diary was delayed because of a driving run to Connecticut to pick up a new in box Monster Bash pinball machine remake from the Chicago Gaming Company.  Lucille, young Sammy and Jeremy accompanied me on the 80 minute trip (160 minutes round trip) to Automated Services in Milford.  As longtime pinball aficionados it was admittedly thrilling to leave the area in view of the fact that it has been around 10 months since we last left New Jersey.  Of course we all wore our masks and maintained social distancing even as we briefly toured the establishment’s glorious game room.  Jersey Jack Pinball’s just released “Guns n Roses” machine is a real stunner, and it brings the concert experience to a machine like no other music pin ever.

Our family spent most of the past week viewing Christmas films for the umpteenth time, beloved movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1951 A Christmas Carol, the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street and the Christmas episodes of the Honeymooners, The Twilight Zone (Night of the Meek and The Changing of the Guard) and timeless shorts like Charlie Brown’s Christmas, The Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. (more…)

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 © 2020 by James Clark

      One could say there isn’t really “a Bergman film;” inasmuch as each constituent episode weaves into a very large and a very challenging reflection. Long before he began to produce films, the enormity of his concern had overrun his careerist attention.

However, within the corridors of that cosmos, several alarms flare up to concentrate an angle of dilemma. One of the most demanding and generous of these clusters involves three films separated by three eras, namely, To Joy (1950); After the Rehearsal (1984, our film today); and Saraband (2003). The first, To Joy, strikes the tone that professional musical absorption is a deadly disease of oversight, not to forget, however, that, as in many arts disciplines, there could be (but very seldom) an intent to counter mere “impressiveness.” Slightly more current there, was the bid to find a footing by which to stage counter attacks on the run against casual pedantry and reflexive advantage. The third film, Saraband, also about the perils of professional musicianship, reveals someone who has a remarkable clue about performance, transcending poisonous commonness.

Not only does the second of the deck, namely, After the Rehearsal, by and large lack the hopes just mentioned, but its principals act on the macabre premise of being herded into an act of incest. (All three of these films aptly being described as the “incest allegory.”) As such, we must be on alert for the magic we know will not entirely fail us. (The overt factor of rebelling here coincides with an extraordinary entry having been produced two years before our film today, namely, Fanny and Alexander [1982]. There, a well-to-do woman, Emilie, after the death of her husband, Oscar, who was the owner and director of a theatre, after much Sturm und Drang, takes up Oscar’s passion, and displays a sense of perspective, seeing more beyond a pedantic workload, beyond the snag of the workaholic. [Though workaholics come in many forms, it is only when artists stray that true disaster occurs.] Emilie chooses for her debut, the August Strindberg work, A Dream Play [1901], a forerunner to the visions of Expressionism and Surrealism. It is in the preparation of a performance of that play which constitutes this television-com-film of, After the Rehearsal.) (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Wishing all our dear friends and longtime readers a very Merry Christmas and continues safely during this most difficult of times.  Lucille and I have been hunkered at home watching films and preparing for the holiday, though we still report to school in a building where very few are still at hand during this “virtual at home” period.  Plenty of Christmas-related classic films and decorating, though this past week squirrels bit through the wires on our outdoors holiday lights twice consecutively forcing us to leaves things be and go with the indoor displays and tree.

Though we saw four more 2020 films (unlike last week all are recommended) I am for the time being only reporting on one of them and have used my star ratings to convey where I stand on the quartet.  I am an August Wilson Broadway junkie. Lucille and I have seen six productions of his plays over the years (Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running and Radio Golf) and I consider him the finest American playwright post-Williams. However, we have NOT seen “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” on stage. Nonetheless the shattering, richly filmed and costumed film version, directed by George Wolfe is masterful and it features some of the best performances in any movie this year, especially by a tortured Chadwick Boseman and the titular character played by Viola Davis in the best turn of her career. The drama, expansively exploring black musicians fighting racism in 1927, is replete with searing monologues, and is because of swirling, textured camerawork miraculously keeps claustrophobia at a long distance is an emotional roller coaster that builds in momentum and even features several instances of drama within a drama like the segment when Ma demands several bottles of Coca-Cola before she will agree to record. The use of music is magisterial and time and place is powerfully evoked. Boseman’s work is master class.

note:  I will very soon respond to the fascinating comments on the previous MMD from Bobby J., Mark and others!

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by Sam Juliano

Vaccines have been shipped to stateside destinations and are set to be injected to health care workers as early as Tuesday.  Finally we have reason to be optimistic, though currently rising numbers remain fearful.  Hoping many of our friends and readers are planning to avail themselves of this potentially live-saving proposition.  On Friday the Supreme Court may well have put the final nail in the coffin by rejecting the absurd lawsuit filed by Texas aimed at overturning election results in battleground states in one of the most heinous assaults on democracy in our nation’s history.  Though their final decision was really a no brainer, and anything but that decision would have turned the country upside down I still commend the conservative court for doing what was right and this included the three justices Trump appointed.

This past week film scholar and longtime site friend and contributor Duane Porter published a brilliant decade list that we so proud to have in our archives.  Also, J. D. Lafrance posted a fabulous review on Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Bille August.  Lucille and I saw a slew of films this past week and though I plan on elaborating for now I will just go with the five star rating scale for each and brief commentary.  I expected so much more from Steve McQueen’s spectacularly-praised Lovers Rock, but alas I found it significantly overrated and one-note.  Conversely I was never a big Kelly Reichardt fan so many others but now have finally found one that I thought exceptional, a film beautifully capturing the raw outdoors and one quietly enveloping (First Cow).  The film adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom, with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman among others had its moments, but overall it was musically pedestrian and largely squandered an interesting premise.  Spike Lee’s Vietnam War era set Da Five Bloods was largely gripping but also somewhat over the top, and it features a paranoia ridden great performance by Delroy Lindo, which for me echos in theme Humphrey Bogart’s in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  The Italian film Martin Eden, which the New York Times called the best movie of the entire year has some standout scenes and was often beautiful to look at but it was too episodic and emotionally distancing for my taste, hence again a most overrated film. (more…)

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by Duane Porter

When considering what might be the best films of the past decade it is perhaps worthwhile to think about how such films come to be. Great art doesn’t emerge fully formed on its own. Many recent films, I might even say, the best recent films have been engaged in a dialogue with cinema history. The best filmmakers of the present evoke and engage with the work of the past, building on the history of cinema. When, 125 years ago, Auguste and Louis Lumière set up a camera in front of their factory as the workers were leaving, it was then cinema happened. From this beginning evolved the nature of cinematic consciousness. It was a new way to look at the world. D.W. Griffith (True Heart Susie, 1919) used camera movement and close-ups along with film editing to stir emotions and tell a story. Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) used film editing to create a montage of disjunctive images to arrest and hold the audiences attention. Buster Keaton (Seven Chances, 1925) enacts his comedies within a world of phenomenality, cars pass by and people walk down the street, tree branches move in the breeze and clouds float in the sky. Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929) explored perception and consciousness by disrupting in surprise the flow of expectation. The persistence of cinema, from the first film to the most recent, given an intimate experience of its continuous ambiguities, its inimitable contradictions, its convergent equivalence, its quiet moments of truth, it’s then, a single frame contains the world.

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I. Certified Copy 2010 ‘Copie conforme’ Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

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2. Goodbye to Language 2014 ‘Adieu au langage’ Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

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3. No Home Movie 2015 Directed by Chantal Akerman

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4. Inherent Vice 2014 Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

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5. Melancholia 2011 Directed by Lars von Trier

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6. Before Midnight 2013 Directed by Richard Linklater

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7. A Quiet Passion 2016 Directed by Terence Davies

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8. The Other Side of the Wind 2018 Directed by Orson Welles

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9. Elle 2016 Directed by Paul Verhoeven

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10. Phoenix 2014 Directed by Christian Petzold

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11. La Flor 2018 Directed by Mariano Llinás

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12. The Tree of Life 2011 Directed by Terrence Malick

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13. Winter Sleep 2014 ‘Kış Uykusu’ Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

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14. Film Socialisme 2010 Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

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15. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 2010 Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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16. Communists 2014 ‘Kommunisten’ Directed by Jean-Marie Straub

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17. Certain Women 2016 Directed by Kelly Reichardt

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18. Mad Max: Fury Road 2015 Directed by George Miller

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19. Twin Peaks: The Return 2017 Directed by David Lynch

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20. The Irishman 2019 Directed by Martin Scorsese

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21. Personal Shopper 2016 Directed by Olivier Assayas

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22. The Assassin 2015 Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien

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23. Under the Skin 2013 Directed by Jonathan Glazer

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24. Holy Motors 2012 Directed by Leos Carax

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25. Margaret 2011 Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

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by J.D. Lafrance

With the success of Legends of the Fall (1994), Julia Ormond briefly dabbled with the Hollywood A-list, appearing in big budget studio productions like First Knight (1995) and an ill-conceived remake of Sabrina (1995). While the former was a commercial hit, the latter was not and to be fair, both projects felt like an ill-fit for the talented English actress. Ormond parlayed whatever clout she had left and starred in Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997), an adaptation of the best-selling Danish novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg. Despite the pedigree of acclaimed director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) and a cast featuring the likes of Gabriel Byrne, Tom Wilkinson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Richard Harris, the film was a commercial failure and received mixed reviews. August seemed interested in making an artistic film as opposed to a standard thriller while some fans of the book felt that Ormond was miscast as the titular character. Now that some time has passed since the film’s release and there is some distance from the source material, it can be judged on its own merits.

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by Sam Juliano

I’d love to report on some happy developments but sadly we are not yet in such a position.  The pandemic continues to rage and numbers are on the rise daily as businesses are taking a second hit this calendar year.  Theaters are again closing their doors though I for one have stayed clear since late February.  With a lifetime of film going this hiatus is by leaps and bounds the longest ever, and I’m sure many readers can lamentably make the same claim.  In the meantime our deranged commander-in-chief continues to promote baseless claims of voter fraud in an election he lost by over 7 million votes while he is doing nothing during this most awful time in our history.

This past week our resident film scholar Jim Clark has added to his monumental Ingmar Bergman series with a probing, comprehensive account of the film master’s early career gem To Joy.  Yours Truly has finally begun to explore the films that are being touted as Oscar contenders in 2021.  We watched The Trial of the Chicago 7 by Aaron Sorkin Friday night, and I was reasonably impressed.  Strong writing and acting in this largely riveting courtroom drama of events that played out in the late 60s. (more…)

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© 2020 by James Clark

The genesis of Ingmar Bergman’s thrilling final film, namely, Saraband (2003), consists of a film few have seen and few will ever see, namely, To Joy (1950). Fifty-three years is a long span; but the matters in that long-ago gem include sensibility in such a way as to expose an obligation untouched by Saraband, and any of the other films in that chain of pearls.

Before getting down to the reason why this hidden treasure is particularly important, let’s enumerate what Saraband did so wonderfully on the recommendation of that lost classic. There we find that the effete couple in the film, Scenes from a Marriage (1973), are even far more tedious in Saraband, in their craving for advantage, than when they were younger. The protagonist, Karin, therein, soldiers on to introduce an overtaking of advantage in the music industry while aiming for a career of a classical orchestra player finding gold in the form of sharing with other players attentive to the infrastructures of intention, not the pedantry of being perfect, supreme in that discipline, and mowing down one’s inferiors. Moreover, To Joy, not explicitly but readily understood, moves apace—53 years before, in one Henrik, becoming a practicing incest opportunist until Karin brings equilibrium to her métier—presents a 30-year-old siren sporting a wedding ring pretending to be the wife of a 60-year-old when in fact his daughter, and doing tricks at the homestead. (more…)

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