Archive for the ‘Sam on Movies’ Category

room 3

by Sam Juliano

It is rare for one to conclude that a title sequence is the most unforgettable component in a film that offers so much more, and succeeds admirably on practically every level.  Yet this is precisely the case with Ismael Merchant and James Ivory’s ravishing period piece A Room with a View (1985) based on the beloved 1908 novel of the same name by E. M. Forster.  Over the sublime vocals of soft-toned soprano Kiri TeKanawa, who delivers an incomparable reading of Giacomo Puccini’s great aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi, the third part of the composer’s triptych opera Il Trittico, we are treated to the sumptuous watercolor illustrations by Florentine artist Folco Cianfanelli. Ornate shapes, patterns and designs accompany the peace meal scrolling of the film’s actors and craftsmen, but more importantly this collaboration of aural and artistic elements render the film a sensory as well as narrative appeal.  The Forster hook was there, it was up to Merchant and Ivory to craft the proper sensibilities.  In any case the affinity for Puccini did not end with the beloved credit aria, as the big kiss in the Italian fields was immeasurably boosted by the intoxicating “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from the composer’s La Rondine, also voiced by the inimitable Ms. Te Kanawa.  The number is revisited in part by way of orchestration in other parts of the film.  When Puccini isn’t dominating the soundtrack in his traditional take no prisoners manner -his two arias accentuate the richness of the setting and the romantic underpinning of the story-  the Merchant/Ivory stock company composer Richard Robbins brings his own considerable measure of lyricism that is perfectly attuned to the score’s operatic hook.  As far as the aforementioned credit sequence is concerned it should be noted that the same design is interspersed throughout the film in the manner of chapter titles.

It could certainly be argued that Forster’s Howard’s End and A Passage to India are more complex novels with a wider breadth, but by way of delight and engagement A Room with a View may hold poll position in his canon.  The novel is an Edwardian comedy of manners with some acidic wit that is magically transformed on the screen from what seems like a light and frivolous enterprise into something much more soulful in its rapturous appreciation of Italy’s scenic resplendence.  It wound up influencing a host of other films like Enchanted April and Under the Tuscan Sun, but on the strength of it’s writing, cinematography, music, set design and especially it’s cast it is the best in it’s sub-genre.   (more…)

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i walked 2

by Sam Juliano

Ah, woe/Woe is me/Shame and sorrow for the family.

It has been argued in scholarly cinematic circles that “there are two Lewton masterworks: I Walked With A Zombie (visually the more eloquent and elegant) and The Seventh Victim (the more poetic and profound).”  It has furthermore been alleged  that “Neither film employs a conventional narrative structure although the subjects, voodoo and devil worship, are the stuff of traditional horror movies.”  For both films Lewton formulated a mosaic-like structure that doesn’t so much as present a full story than suggest it’s “possibilities.”  Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar  would be an example of this practice, as it eschews conventional narrative for the exploration of a specific theme.

The same theme seems to prevail in Lewton’s films: the power of reason vs. the power of obscurity.  The concerns are given the same attention, but Lewton, a studied man with a literary slant, is in essence a measured artist whose greatest gift was always reveling in the humanity of his characters, a gift that once won effusive praise from the great critic James Agee.  Hence it is assumed that the powers of darkness will in the end be negated by rational thinking.  Perhaps the most startling element in I Walked With A Zombie, the second in his famous low-budget horror series, is that diabolical forces emerged victorious at the film’s conclusion.


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by Sam Juliano

The following film review of “City of the Dead” is offered up as a “Halloween” special.

    John Moxey’s 1961 low-budget City of the Dead is an eighty minute feature that in story, theme and execution could well have fit comfortably on Boris Karloff’s one-hour Thriller, which ran the same year and one beyond.  It wouldn’t even seem out of place as one of the one hour Twilight Zones shown a few years later, or even as an installment of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  Made on a shoe sting on studio lots, one could hardly anticipate the reputation it has enjoyed to this very day.  Sure it features Christopher Lee in a relatively minor role, and offers up an early assignment for celebrated cinematographer Desmond Dickinson, but upon conception and subsequent release it wasn’t especially distinguished.  Yet like fine wine, this fog enshrouded story about witchcraft set in the fictional “Whitewood” Massachusetts has risen in reputation and remains one of the very best films of his kind.  It trumps the very well made but didactic Burn Witch Burn, and it isn’t at all out of place to speak of it when recalling Mario Bava’s masterpiece Black Sunday, another monochrome gem made the same year as the British City of the Dead.   The story device of the young heroine being killed off early in the film was apparently lifted from Hitchcock’s Psycho, 

Known in America by a more sensational title, Horror Hotel, the film opens with a stunning prologue, set during the Puritan era in late seventeenth century Massachusetts.  A young woman named Elizabeth Selwyn (played by Patricia Jessel) is burned at the stake for “consorting with the devil.”  The hostile crowd cheers on her demise, while the woman appeals unsuccessfully to another Puritan named Jethro Keane to help her.  Keane, fearing for his own life remains silent, but privately urges Lucifer to assist her when a cloak of darkness suddenly descends to announce his arrival.  Selwyn boasts to the crowd that she has made her pact, before she is roasted on the pyre.  The scene then segues into the present at the home of Professor Alan Driscoll (Lee) who is highly respected by a young blonde beauty, Nan Barlow (played by Venetia Stevenson, the daughter of the director of Mary Poppins), who informs him privately that she wishes to do her research at a place where witchcraft once flourished.  Driscoll tells her he knows just the place – a town “off the beacon track” named Whitewood, and writes down the name of the “Raven’s Inn,” advising her to speak to the woman running the place, a “Mrs. Newless.”   (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Well, why don’t you love me like you used to do?
How come you treat me like a worn-out shoe?
My hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue
Why don’t you love me like you used to do?

Well, why don’t you be just like you used to be?
How come you find so many faults with me?
Somebody’s changed so let me give you a clue
Why don’t you love me like you used to do?

– Hank Williams Sr.

the most important work by a young American director since Citizen Kane.”

The above quote by Paul D. Zinnemann of Newsweek is one of the most famous examples of critical hyperbole ever recorded, yet, 44 years later it still underscores the reputation of a movie classic and the director who bettered a literary classic in making a  film that is arguably the finest by an American in the 1970’s.  I first discovered it as a budding movie fan in the magazine section of my hometown library a short time after I turned seventeen in a section of wildly favorable capsules that not only included The Last Picture Show, by also Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.  All three films were released in the final third of the year.  Peter Bogdonovich would go on to direct some other fine films like Paper Moon and What’s Up Doc? but he never again equaled the grand slam he achieved with his aching elegy of Anarene, Texas, a town doomed by technological advances. The 50’s were arguably the final decade where the movie theater held prominent sway in one’s social life, and in The Last Picture Show its importance is literal and thematic.  Seventeen years later, the Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore would traverse the same territory with Cinema Paradiso, though the approach was unadulterated wallowing in nostalgia.  Bogdonovich manages to derive the same level of emotion in one of the most deeply-felt of all American films, but he does it without the aid of sentimentality and the unbridled lyricism of Ennio Morricone.  Mind you, this writer is a huge fan of Cinema Paradiso, but is still willing to note the vast difference between directorial approaches.

Bogdonovich underscores his intentions by filming in high school yearbook styled monochrome at the urging of his friend Orson Welles, enlisting the renowned Robert Surtees, whose work here is as accomplished as in any American film.  The proper mood and deep focus possibilities could only reach fruition with the use of black and white.  The Last Picture Show opens brilliantly as the camera pans across shabby Main Street and a decaying cluster of buildings, with a ferocious wind swept howl providing audio embellishment.  The camera eventually settles on a beat up pick up truck that belongs to high school buddies, one that blares out the Williams standard posted here above while sputtering before it starts up.    The theater -the Royal- stands next to a minimalist pool hall and a cafe that remains open all hours.  These are the only places that provide a modicum of activity in a town rife with ennui and adolescent alienation from parents they are always escaping from.  Quiet despondency seems to run over two generations in this one-horse town.  Bogdonovich brings an extraordinary visual sense to the themes examined by his screenwriter Larry McMurtry, whose acclaimed novel is the source for this searing evocation of a place that offers no opportunity or sense of identity – only an unchanging mode of existence that centers around sex.  The main characters include two young men, Sonny and Duane, who during the course of the film fall in love with the same girl – the school’s ravishing beauty Jacy, but there are other relationships they indulge in that complicate what is on one level a stylized soap opera.  McMurtry makes it clear enough that there s very little to do in this stagnant whistle-stop, and the various pursuits are exclusively hedonistic.  The fact that we learn virtually nothing about our central characters’ home lives makes them symbols of a marked transformation of a culture, though with magnifying glass intensity McMurtry and Bogdonovich draw full bodied characters with powerfully observed intimacy.  Sonny’s father is seen once at a dance hall – it is clear enough he’s got a drinking problem, and Duane’s mother is seen briefly at the front door of their home near the end. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

John Boorman’s Hope and Glory stands apart from nearly-all other World War II-themed films in that it presents an idyllic view of terrible events, seen through the eyes of a ten-year old boy.  By displaying the humor and the resilience of the boy’s family and the British people in general, the film at first broaches denial, and then segues into domestic life wrought under danger and hardship, where luck plays a large part in the survival game.  Hope and Glory is for it’s writer-director a semi-autobiographical work centering around his own experiences of a child growing up during the war, and of the psychology of a nation not yet ready for such a calamity.  When a school teacher quips “a few bombs may wake up this country” and the boy’s mother complains that they’re “starting  a war on such a beautiful day”you know that many aren’t prepared for, nor aware of the deadly battle of wills that is to soon ensue.

Young Bill Rohan, played by a spunky young actor named Sebastian Rice Edwards, lives with his parents and two sisters in a London suburb.  His father, who is too old to serve in combat, is assigned to a military desk job early in the film, so the young boy is surrounded by females and a close friend of his mother.  His daily routine is in large measure to attend school, engage in mischief with friends, and scour through the wreckage caused by bombs that penetrate the blimp defense employed around the country.  You don’t have to be British to be stirred by an emphatic school master’s patriotic speech invoking Churchill and and the brave young warriors enlisted to defend the country, with the strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” underscoring the noble defiance.  When Billy holds up the cover of a war periodical at the end of the sermon, we’re reminded that the kids think it’s a big adventure, no different that when Billy plays with his collection of soldiers before going to bed.  And few mothers won’t be able to relate to a wrenching scene when Bill’s mum breaks down a the train station, at the planned prospect of sending Billy and his youngest sister away to safer pastures until the end of the war, only to change her mind and be rejected by the officials. (more…)

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CP 1

by Sam Juliano

The Ridgefield Park Rialto closed its doors on June 13, 2008.  This local institution was the last single screen theater in Bergen County, New Jersey, and the only one in that domain that had shown art house movies.  Opening in 1927 as a vaudeville showcase, it was soon enough transformed to a movie house in the late 30’s, and was purchased in the 70’s by a single owner.  That same person held ownership with his daughter all the way to the final days, showing mainstream fare until the mid 90’s, then catering to the Indian community for Bollywood features until 2001 when the schedule was comprised exclusively of foreign language and independent films.  The experiment yielded mixed results, though there were times when the 600 seat auditorium sold out, if the film was an appealing one.  The inevitable cessation of operations signified the end of an era, and left bewildered customers waxing lyrical about their own personal stories related to their attendance at the venerable institution.  The common lamentations were along the line that larger multiplexes had made it financially incompatible for the smaller operators to earn their keep, and equipment had become antiquated.  In any case the closing of the theater was an emotional time for workers and customers, and it had some regulars scurrying for souvenirs that included posters, marquee letters and actual seats that were unscrewed from the floor by employees.  Any token, big or small would provide some tangible physical evidence well into the future of   a place that helped formulate dreams and escape, a movie house mecca that in the end that left a more lasting impression than even the splendid product it served up to the public.

The movie that was screened on that final day was the 1988 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, the Italian-made Cinema Paradiso, a sentimental feature about a venerated Sicilian movie house that entertained small town denizens before and during the war, and then again when it was resurrected after a fire.  Like its modern day Garden State counterpart, and like so many other treasured movie palaces that were forced into closure because of dwindling profits, the fictional Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, a metaphor for theaters everywhere, was finally razed after it was sold to developers.  The Rialto was not blasted by dynamite as the theater in the movie was, but was left for a Korean group to build a planned mall.  Ironically the inside of the theater was gutted, but has been laying dormant for six years, making this picture even more lamentable.


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anne green gables

by Sam Juliano

Note: This review is dedicated to the memory of Jonathan Crombie, who passed away earlier this year in New York City at the age of 48 of an unexpected and tragic brain hemorrhage. The beloved actor was, is, and forever will be the world’s only Gilbert Blythe.

I don’t want sunbursts or marble halls.  I just want you.

Anne Shirley to Gilbert Blythe, “Anne of Avonlea”

Mark Twain once described freckled-faced and incorrigible Anne Shirley as fiction’s dearest child since Lewis Carroll’s Alice.  While such a glowing contention would be difficult to contest, it might be harder yet to deny she is the most famous character in all of Canadian literature, and that her creator, Lucy Ward Montgomery  is often referred to as the “American Mark Twain.”  The author’s young heroine was the subject of an eight book series that brought great fame to Montgomery in her lifetime, giving way to translation in twenty-five languages, and bringing sustained scrutiny to the author’s diaries, letters and full body of work.   This brought bringing lasting fame to her birthplace, homes and grave site on the extraordinarily beautiful Prince Edward Island, a tiny province of Canada off the shore of Nova Scotia that now owes much of its prominence to Montgomery and her venerated Anne.  Tourism is a one of the island’s most lucrative assets, and for decades a “Green Gables Tour” has been a godsend for fans of her novels.  Canadian tourism officials report that in excess of 125,000 visitors a year descend on the paradise hamlet to behold the literary landmarks and partake in the related festivities.  It could well be argued that Prince Edward Island can’t be even contemplated without a thought for Anne and the author who best extrapolated on the place’s special and incomparable allure.  To this end there can be no doubt that the mid-80’s television adaptations have taken the franchise to places never seen before.

Though the beloved first book in the series – Anne of Green Gables – was made into a successful RKO film in 1934, its extremely short length didn’t give opportunity for a well-rounded look at Anne, nor at the many narrative and character complexities in the novel.  Some stage plays followed, but not until Kevin Sullivan acquired the rights in 1984 did the book receive the kind of treatment that not only exhibited fidelity to its source but brought an exceeding level of warmth and humanity that has continued to hold thrall with viewers around the world.  Sullivan’s battles in court to defend his acquisition of the rights and the lawsuits connected to them have reached all the way to the shores of Japan, where ironically the most passionate Anne of Green Gables fans reside.  Sullivan took full advantage of the loveliest of rural settings, filming on the island and assembling a dream cast that to this day represents a rare chemistry that is achieved through luck, timing and talent.  Sullivan co-wrote the script for Green Gables with Joe Wiesenfeld and handled the direction, and for all the film’s exemplary components it remains the key ingredient in the work’s enduring appeal.  When the great success of the 200 minute film was assured -Sullivan moved forward on a sequel, which is titled Anne of Avonlea, and as written and adapted solely by him based on three books in the series – Anne of Avonlea (Book Two); Anne of the Island (Book Three) and Anne of Windy Poplars (Book Four) it represented a unique hybrid.   Again the writing was exceptional, and the addition of several characters and sub-plots were woven in successfully.  Avonlea also featured a hefty running time at 230 minutes, though as fans and critics have glowingly attested it remained engrossing throughout.  Following up on the heels of its revered predecessor, Avonlea in short order became the highest rated drama to air on network television in Canadian broadcasting history.  It spawned a spectacularly successful television series Road to Avonlea, which was activated by some of Montgomery’s short stories and novellas.  At 93 episodes it remains the longest running, most popular and lucrative drama series ever produced in Canada.   A third film, Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story arrived in 2000, though to weak reception.  But the first two films, which are the subject of this review, will be considered as a single work, though with the dividing specifications.  Together they comprise what is arguably the most magnificent television work based on fiction ever produced in the western hemisphere.  Sullivan later added an animated Anne of Green Gables, which was fairly well-received, and then a fourth film a few years back that was lesser regarded. (more…)

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