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by Sam Juliano

Many thanks to all the writers, comment leavers and page viewers for our successful Third Annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival which concluded on Wednesday after an eight-day window at WONDERS IN THE DARK.  God willing we will return in May of 2020 with the Fourth Annual AFOFF.   To Jamie, Sachin, Robert, Adam, Shubhajit, Roderick and John Grant a special salute for your extraordinary submissions, each masterful and revealing for the film community.  I’ve received several e mails from members stating that thought the quality of writing was the highest level ever for this festival, a sentiment that has me so thrilled.

Next Sunday -June 16 (Father’s Day) Jay Giampietro’s short film Best Picture which features Yours Truly as the main character and moderator, will be screening in Brooklyn as part of the 2019 BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) Film Festival.  John Grant, Adam Ferenz, Tony Lucibello, Bart Talamini, Tanya and Tommy Whalen and family members and other friends are featured in this fabulous short feature about our early March Oscar party at Fairview’s Tiger Hose Firehouse.

James Clark’s magnificent essay on what is arguably Claire Denis’ supreme masterpiece, Beau Travail posted this past Thursday at the site.  J.D. Lafrance will be returning on Tuesday of this week with his newest review.

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by Sam Juliano

The third annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival will run until Wednesday and thus far this noble venture founded by James Uhler has yielded stupendous posts by accomplished writers.  Many thanks to the writers, readers and lurkers and to those who have responded in the comment sections.  The page view totals have been impressive.  Roderick Heath, John Grant and Yours Truly will be posting after Jamie Uhler, Sachin Gandhi, Adam Ferenz, Robert Hornak,  and Shubhajit Lahiri published this past week.

I thought Dexter Fletcher’s ROCKETMAN was largely an excellent biopic of Elton John. Wonderful song to theme integration, sexual honesty and kaleidoscopic visuals. Taron Edgerton is a splendid fit for the iconic star and Jamie Bell is equally superb as the masterful song writer Bernie Taupin. Bryce Dallas Howard is also first-rate as Sheila. Really takes off the gloves in examining John’s flamboyant lifestyle which of course descended into debauchery and how as in real-life John battled his demons and has been sober for about 30 years. The great musical legend purportedly oversaw much of the final product and approved. 4.5 of 5. (seen Saturday evening in Secaucus). (more…)

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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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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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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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(From L-R): Anthony Boyle, Tom Glynn-Carney, Patrick Gibson and Nicholas Hoult in the film TOLKIEN

by Sam Juliano

Mid-May and warm weather would seem to be synonymous but in the New York City and northeast New Jersey area is has been unseasonably cool and rainy.  Our family are still morning the loss of our Labrador retriever Morgan who passed on Wednesday from a fast moving cancer at 12 years and 8 months old.  We acquired Morgan in late September of 2007 in one of the unlikeliest of scenarios. Lucille and I were heading in to see an opera at the Metropolitan at Lincoln Center and we passed an Animal Rescue trailer, where we stopped briefly. We ended up paying the small fee for a female white/yellow lab puppy named Morgan and the rest is history as they say. Needless to say we gave up our opera that night.  We lost our other (black) lab Joanie three years back. She lived one year less than Morgan. We have a blind pug, a second small dog, three cats, a turtle, an Amazon parrot, a guinea pig, a tortoise and even a chicken but the beloved veteran Morgan will be in our hearts forever.

This week our previous participants will be sent via e mail instructions on the upcoming Allan Fish Online Film Festival which will commence on Tuesday, May 28th (Allan’s 46th birthday).  Jamie Uhler and I will speak on the final specs over the next few days.

This past week I again served as a chaperone for our school district’s annual Washington D.C. school trip which ran from Wednesday morning till late Friday night.  We visited museums, and the many memorials and partook in the extended Capitol and Pentagon tours.  On the way down to D.C. we also stopped briefly in Philadelphia where the kids got to see the Liberty Bell and the First Continental Hall. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

I am honored beyond words to learn this week that a short film which features me as the central character and host of my annual Oscar party at the Tiger Hose Firehouse has been selected to screen in the prestigious BAM Brooklyn Academy of Music Film Festival in June. The short is titled BEST PICTURE, and is directed by the brilliant award-winning Jay Giampietro. I’m still dazed. Friends and film writers Adam Ferenz and John Grant are also featured in the film.  Having a cherished annual event permanently ensconced and shown on the big screen to a packed audience is a dream event and mid June will be a festive time in these parts.

This past week our great scholarly film essayist James Clark has published another brilliant piece, this time on Claire Denis’ The Intruder.  The superb film reviewer J.D. Lafrance also published an a terrific piece, on Monte Hellman’s 1971 Two Lane Backdrop.

Lucille and I completed eleven torrid days at the Tribeca Film Festival.  My latest reports here at on the seven days of this present week after the first report on the previous MMD.  They are as follows: (more…)

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