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Richard James is the founder and executive director of the Billtown Film Festival.

Happy New Year – Nominations are in…

Okay, which film will win best picture at the 2014 Academy Awards in March? They all look great don’t they? Man! Some really hard decisions have to be made. Too bad they all can’t take home the gold little man.

Which is your favorite?

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club





12 Years a Slave

The Wolf on Wall Street


I think American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are neck and neck, with Her,  Dallas Buyers Club and the Wolf on Wall Street a half a length behind. I give the long shot to Nebraska or Philomena. I don’t see Captain Phillips in the home stretch…

Goodbye Mr. OToole.













Peter O’Toole was one of our favorite actors. We’re saddened to hear of his passing on December 14, 2013. He was 81. His last theatrical film was Venus (2006), directed by Roger Mitchell. Here’s the promo blurb from the DVD jacket: “Academy Award nominee Peter O’Toole (2006 Best Actor) leads a powerful to deliver a charming and poignant portrayal of Maurice, an aging veteran actor who becomes absolutely taken with Jessie – the grandniece of his closest friend. When Maurice tries to soften the petulant and provincial young girl with the benefit of his wisdom and London culture, their give-and-take surprises Maurice and Jessie as they discover what they don’t know about themselves.”

This film may be O’Toole’s greatest onscreen performance and that’s including his breakout role, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Venus is an excellent exit film for a fine actor.

The coal town story

The James V. Brown Library will screening a film by local filmmaker Martin J. Hula tonight in its theater/meeting Lowry Room on the third floor of the new Welch wing at 6:30pm tonight Thursday November 21, 2013. The film, “Life in a Coal Mining Town, is a great piece of work,” says Shawn Newcomer of the library staff. “Highly recommended!”

From the library’s website: ”

Area resident Martin J. Hula will present his documentary memoir “Life in a Coal Town” and display his memorabilia. He will also discuss his novel “The Coal Picker.”

Coal mining has left an indelible imprint on Pennsylvania history. From the anthracite region in the east to the bituminous mines in the west, coal affected the growth of Pennsylvania’s economy, development of towns and, of course, the people who lived in them. Some may be familiar films such as The Molly Maguires and Matewan that depict the harsh realities of living in a coal mining town, but local resident Martin J. Hula lived it growing up in the western Pennsylvania town of Marstella, or Moss Creek as the residents referred to it after the nearby stream.

This stark portrayal of the hardships of the people of Moss Creek is incredibly moving and enlightening and should be seen by anyone who lives and works in Pennsylvania now. From the dangers of the mines to the tyranny of the company store, this is a tale not to be missed.”

Antebellum cinema

12 Years a Slave: The film validated my feelings about today’s race relations in the US. It provides a contextual basis to understand racial dynamics in the 21st Century. It explains, inadvertently, the reasons for racial animus in today’s American political, cultural and social scenes.

In preparation for viewing the film, I also viewed Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with Wind (1939). The romanticism of southern nobility was stripped away and the brutality was revealed like never before. 12 Years is just a small part of the American Holocaust, there is much more to be told, but a 133 minute film is limited. (Birth of a Nation was 3 hours, and Gone with the Wind 4 hours) Granted, the mini-series ROOTS, played on the ABC network for a week in 1977, but the images of brutality were suppressed for the TV audience. For instance, the scars on Kinte’s back was not as dreadful as the whipping scars in 12 Years. In the name of conceptual balance, more black protagonists are needed in American cinema. Perhaps a 4-hour epic of Nat Turner’s rebellion, or a 3-hour saga of Harriet Tubman’s family might be in the works. Who knows?

Technically the film was superb. Considering that the slave’s point of view has never been told before in a major US motion picture, filming in Louisiana shows real progress that the south is ready to deal with its past honestly.

In terms of content, I was expecting more gore. But thank God that didn’t happen. I absolutely love Michael Fassbinder in this film. I was convinced that he was a raving madman. Interestingly, I did not hate him as the film’s most culpable villain, the system itself was on trail and rightly earned my disgust.

The earlier films mentioned here were more sympathetic to Southerners. Whites were portrayed as victims who had lost the American equivalent of a classical civilization. 12 Years gives us a new perspective, that of the slave. In the same way Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus (1960) reveals Rome’s corruption and excesses, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave presents the quiet heroic efforts of Solomon Northup to stay alive in a world gone mad.

Some of my friends are reticent about seeing the movie. Some want to see it in the privacy of their homes so that they may weep in great anguish. I can’t fault them for that. It is a powerful film that will evoke uncomfortable feelings of sadness. But I suggest that most folks can see the film in the theater. McQueen shows us the brutal truth the same way Spielberg gave us the horrors of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List (1993) … just enough to make us feel uneasy.

The telling of the American Holocaust has started. I hope more films of this quality are on their way.

More gun play in PG-13’s









Since the tragedy in Newtown Connecticut last year, Gun Control and the role, if any, that popular media contributes to gun violence has been hot topics in the news. Some observers say that there has been an uptick in gun violence in the last few years. It certainly seems that we are experiencing more mass shootings.

A new study says that movies rated as PG-13 – that is movies aimed at teens – are more violent than R rated movies. So what do you think? Are young people being exposed to more gun violence in movies? If that is true, does more guns in movies make teens more aggressive? For more about the recent study by Ohio State University, VU (Vrije Universiteit) University Amsterdam in The Netherlands and the University of Pennsylvania, click here.

Coincidentally, when a crazed gunman shot up a movie theater in Aurora Colorado, the movie The Dark Knight Rises was playing. It had a PG-13 rating.

Gravity: The closest thing to space travel

On February 20, 1962, I was in Junior High School, when John Glenn blasted off to be the first American Astronaut to orbit the Earth. That was over 51 years ago. I doubt if I will ever get a chance to fly into outer space; to view the Earth from hundreds of miles away and to experience weightlessness. For most earthlings, space travel is just a dream. The closest thing to actually orbiting the Earth is the viewing the film Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón.

Generally I am afraid of heights, but this film did NOT make me feel queasy. I was quite comfortable viewing the Earth from 600 miles up.

I saw the 3D version and I have to admit I was dodging space debris in my seat.

I was amazed by Sandra Bullock’s performance. (I had to remind myself that this was the same woman that has difficulty driving a bus on LA streets in the movie Speed.)

I really dug this movie. The cinematography was incredible, the acting was superb and the story was exceptionally well written.

How Tom Woodruff, Jr. got started

For those of you who don’t know, Tom Woodruff, Jr. is an award winning special effects artist and creature actor that has worked on the great sci-fi Alien and Predator franchises. He is from the Billtown Film Festival area. We like to call him our “dreams can true-made it in Hollywood” guy. He won an Academy Award (best effects, visual effects) in 1993 for Death Becomes Her. He has also worked on such films as Starship Troopers (1997), The X Files (1998), The 6th Day (2000) and the Thing (2011), just to name a few. Tom and his partner Alex Gillis at their shop Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. are producing a new practical effects film, Harbinger Down.

In the clip below, Tom discusses his career. He advises people to be enthusiastic in their work, but we couldn’t help but notice that Tom also exudes an air of self-confidence that allowed him to excel at his craft. Check out the video and find out more from the Stan Winston school website:


Check back here for updates and more news about Tom and his projects.

New doc on the Drug War

Hey what are you doing Wednesday night at 7pm? Nothing? Okay listen, do yourself a favor and check out this movie that will be play at the Community Arts Center in downtown Williamsport. Sponsored by the Department of Criminal Justice-Criminology at Lycoming College. ADMISSION FREE!

The House I Live In A film by Eugene Jarecki –

Grand Jury Prize Sundance Film Festival 2012

Here what the movie’s official website says:

40 Years, $1 Trillion, 45 Million Arrests: This is the War on Drugs.

Forty years ago, President Nixon called a press conference to tell the American people that their “public enemy #1” was drug abuse. He then proceeded to declare an all-out war on drug users and sellers, with resounding repercussions on criminal justice policy and on vast numbers of Americans.

Subsequent presidents, drug czars, and local politicians have followed Nixon’s lead, fueling an unprecedented boom in the country’s prison population and waging an ever-escalating campaign against what many consider to be nothing more than a public health problem.

The war on drugs has been a failure practically, morally, and economically. The result of this law enforcement approach are stark: today, there are more than 500,000 people incarcerated for drug offenses; billions of dollars are spent annually on narcotics enforcement; treatment is still out of reach for millions of people; and drugs are more available and cheaper than ever before.

But there is also a growing recognition that the course of the past 40 years must change, and there is increasing momentum for drug policy reform from all levels of government and civil society.

• Over the past 40 years, the War on Drugs has cost more than $1 trillion and accounted for more than 45 million arrests.

• In 2009 nearly 1.7 million people were arrested in the U.S. for nonviolent drug charges – more than half of those arrests were for marijuana possession alone. Less than 20% was for the sale or manufacture of a drug.

• Even though White and Black people use drugs at approximately equal rates, Black people are 10.1 times more likely to be sent to prison for drug offenses. Today, Black Americans represent 56% of those incarcerated for drug crimes, even though they comprise only 13% of the U.S. population.

• In a 2010 survey, 8.9% of Americans over the age of 12 had used illicit drugs in the past month.

• Today, there are more people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes, violent or otherwise, in 1970. To return to the nation’s incarceration rates of 1970, America would have to release 4 out of every 5 currently held prisoners.

• Between 1973 and 2009, the nation’s prison population grew by 705 percent, resulting in more than 1 in 100 adults behind bars today. In 1980, the total U.S. prison and jail population was about 500,000 – today, it is more than 2.3 million.

• The U.S. incarcerates more people than any country in the world – both per capita and in terms of total people behind bars. The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it has almost 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.

• In 2011, every 8 state employees worked for a corrections agency.

• In 2009, it cost an average of $78.95 per day to keep an inmate locked up, more than 20 times the cost of a day on probation.

Christian Concert on screen

The Cinema Center Digiplex in Williamsport will be showing SURGE, a Christian Music Concert Wednesday, October 9th, at 7pm. The 90 minute screening will feature, Acquire the Fire, Casting Crows, Newsboys, Ron Luce John Gray and Lecrae!

SURGE is a high energy interactive movie theater event fusing music comedy and inspirational messages. Tickets are $12.50.

Movie theaters are not just movies anymore. Tell Les the manager that BFF sent you!