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 © 2018 by James Clark

      We’re off and running with another breathtaking film by Ingmar Bergman, namely, Cries and Whispers (1972). The nature of this production entails, as usual, thrilling motivations most of us had never thought about. And here we must put into the mix, as never so emphatically before, that the uniqueness of that delivery entails being without any effective allies. We have encountered, in the films by Bergman so far, a species of more or less thriving upon that neglect, a warrior sensibility. But enfolded within that tang, we are also alerted to partaking of the powers implicit in cooperation, cooperation with those who don’t and never will, give a damn for what a figure like Bergman would live for, however chaotically.

Our film today attends remarkably to that estrangement, and, as a result, lingers with the personnel in such a way as to garner from (some of) them a direction to love. The film’s saga involves two protagonists; and we choose here to spotlight one, a woman, namely, Agnes, who has already died from cancer in the earlier part but conveys her golden moment at the film’s final seconds, by way of a diary, read by Anna, her long-time housemaid (though presented by the diarist’s voice-over). The event recorded involves desultory Agnes being paid a visit to the family manor (under her keeping) by her two sisters whom she has allowed to more or less overtly treat her as a non-entity, as she was treated by her mother. Braced, as the latter were, by her long-term illness, there is a moment of vision emanating from their ramble upon the palatial grounds, strewn with golden leaves. “It’s wonderful to be together again… Suddenly we began to laugh and run toward the old swing that we hadn’t seen since we were children [when kinetics were at least as favorable as frozenness]. We sat in it like three good little sisters, and Anna pushed us slowly and gently. All my aches and pains were gone. I could hear them chatting around me… I could  feel the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. I wanted to hold the moment fast, and thought, ‘Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few moments, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life which gives me so much…” (Those visiting angels having—along with Agnes’ skittishness—tossed divided but meritorious Anna to the sharks.)

The full-color composition (unique up until this time for Bergman) needs to be broached, along with the previous films, as a positioning of the urgency of fearlessness. With this particular vehicle, however, we’re on the hook to attending most closely to the apparatus required to fully show what’s ticking here. Therefore, as usual (but not quite the same), we posit, “How new is new?” You’d never have gotten from him anything explicit about the possibility that gigantic and unprecedented change has begun to make inroads and that that uprising (but tempered) is where art attains its stature. Apart from playing the movie game that the single work on tap must stand entirely on the basis of the screen being watched, there would be, however, the understandable discomfort that—unlike the folk reservoir of normal filmic presentation—matters of reflective complexity, generally assumed to be the purview of science and other academic disciplines, have become necessities. Just because the entrenched classical rational experts would utterly dismiss any validity not certified by their practices, does not disable a figure like Bergman to take matters into his own accomplished hands, in his own medium of communication. As such, his work being an extended research of sensibility, the various steps of his disclosures comprise, unlike the normal, disparate  entertainments, a constant, expanding investigation, very germane to earlier discoveries. Unlike conceptual building blocks of a technical nature, Bergman has at his disposal, not only a manifold of dramatic sensibility by way of his screenwriting and Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, but a cadre of performers the varying roles of which, from-film-to-film, increase a current of intent or temper a performer’s previous apparition, for the sake of comprehending the volatility of discernment and its creative capacities as a co-host of the cosmos. Continue Reading »

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By J.D. Lafrance

When The Bourne Identity (2002) debuted in theaters audiences were hungry for a new kind of spy film. The James Bond movies adhered to a tried-and-true formula and it had gotten old. For the most part, the adventures that Bond had in his movies never affected him personally (the notable exception being On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Licence to Kill). In America, Mission: Impossible II (2000) collapsed under John Woo’s stylistic excesses and a boring love story with no chemistry between Tom Cruise and his love interest played by Thandie Newton. The world had changed dramatically since the events of 9/11 and a new international espionage action thriller would have to acknowledge this new reality. Along came The Bourne Identity, a very loose adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s novel of the same name, that took the genre and personalized it, but without sacrificing all the things we’ve come to expect from a spy movie: exotic locales, exciting car chases, lethal bad guys, and intense fight scenes. What made the film such a breath of fresh air was how it tweaked these tried and true conventions.
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by Sam Juliano

Election Day 2018 spelled pretty good news for national Democrats with the House of Representative now wrested from Trump control, though a lot of work still needs to be done heading forward to 2020.  Local Democrats as always won in Fairview unopposed with the county candidates and Senator Menendez winning 3 to 1 in the Borough.  This past week J.D. Lafrance published a great essay on John Carpenter’s They Live.  Jim Clark will be featured this coming week with another essay in his superlative Ingmar Bergman series.

James Uhler’s spectacular Horrorfest 2018 is nearing the end but several capsules still unpublished are offered, each masterfully written.  This annual endeavor is quite the treat for classic and contemporary horror fans.

Disconnected (G. Bechard… 1983) slasher
A discombobulated film that appears to have started as an ‘arty’ student film; you’ll occasionally see it mentioned online as an ‘interesting/unique slasher’. Watching a film where the filmmaker doesn’t know what they’re doing is neither unique, nor different. With the exception of a few clippable bits of unintentional humor, this is a must miss. Might end of being the worst film I do this season (which has otherwise been very high overall, what with all the old films).
Sisters (B. De Palma… 1973) slasher/psychological
Obsession (B. De Palma… 1976) psychological thriller
Decided to do these two since Christina hadn’t seen either; both hold up magnificently well after all these years for similar reasons. They don’t have the sadistic/cynicism of Dressed to Kill/Body Double and show considerable range. Sisters is near minimalistic and rather touching throughout (you end up spending the rest of the night mourning the passing of Margot Kidder, who is terrific here), with De Palma’s best use of split-screen for me (with Blow Out, it remains my favorite of his works). Obsession, another film built around duality, is his (and writer Schrader’s) homage to Vertigo, and while it’s not fair to compare the two (Vertigo is truly one of the forms masterworks), Obsession is better than you recall, De Palma at his most tender and restrained (which is still pretty lurid). Bernard Hermann is featured tremendously in both, with the slight nod going to Sisters because the score is employed more tastefully (sure, the overuse in Obsession is much of the point as the film is a fever dream) with the anarchic noise during the murder sequence a particular thrill.  
Pontypool (B. McDonald… 2008) zombie/psychological
Mandy (P. Cosmatos… 2018) psychological art/slasher
Two recent works that you could glean a lot about our current state of affairs from; Pontypool an interesting rumination on conspiracy theory and unverified news, while Mandy probes dangerous, cultish behavior and, humorously, ‘snowflakes’. Both are good and recommended—Pontypool the insular story of a small, remote radio station that potentially unearths a cataclysmic event (zombies born from hearing spoken language triggers), before taking even wilder turns, is a remarkable study of assured cinema restraint. We’re thoroughly entertained by a minimal setting, a true testament to captivating acting, tight editing, and a roaming, interested camera. Mandy, has little in terms of restraint, it’s a kaleidoscopic, noisy, beat red nightmare, something of a Antichrist meets Tarkovsky via a drive-in theater (or perhaps more apt, a mom and pop VHS rental house). Infused with a heavy metal sensibility, I’m might not watch a Horror film more to my tastes in quite some time, I loved it, and feel Cage has reached his peak in this second half of his career where he’s asked too often play deranged, over-the-top madman. Here, he has to occasionally emote too, and we’re thankful—I loved Beyond the Black Rainbow, but this is a film way beyond the sum of its influences. Masterful, but not for everyone. Like most great Horror.
Q: The Winged Serpent (L. Cohen… 1982) fantasy/horror
Larry Cohen, easily one of the unheralded masters of cult Horror, or cult cinema in general, for me, offers another fun genre work, this time using his budgetary limitations to blow the film up into nearly nonsensical avenues. You wouldn’t think that sitting down to watch a monster movie about a winged beast that you’d get something approaching a crime picture, but here you get a police procedural and a diamond heist. It’s all pretty loose and easy, and Cohen’s script breathes life into what would otherwise be dull scenes (well, that and Michael Moriarty is a real hoot as he would be again in The Stuff a few years later). The man knew how to make pictures—in my opinion he has 3 or 4 top notch schlock works—and you really wonder what could have been had he ever had a real budget—you imagine Ghostbusters straight away here, that’s a straight comedy and this isn’t, but there is just so much overlap. In a more just world Cohen’s Special Effects would look as polished as a De Palma, and we’d recall it as one of the more ingenious post-Hitchcockian deconstructions. Oh well, he has a definite fan in me regardless.

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by Sam Juliano

The term “Trail of Tears” defines the trek of heartbroken Native Americans to their new homes in the West.  It captures the essence of the removal experience, one wrought with hardship and death for the Cherokee people, who were victimized by the betrayal of the American government, which promised justice, democracy and and rightful land ownership.  The forced relocation was carried out by government authorities following the passage of the “Indian Removal Act” in 1830. The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their new designated reserve, and many died before reaching their destinations.   Though the Cherokees were the most profoundly affected by this tragic decree, the Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponca, and Ho-Chunk-Winnebago nations were also adversely impacted.  Debut picture book author Traci Sorell explains in a definition afterward that the “Cherokee way of life focuses on a mother-centered culture, from governance to familial relations” and that the the in-transience damaged the family structure which generally was one where children saw maternal relatives as integral to their coming of age.  While it is a fact that older Cherokee boys often trained to become hunters and warriors, and resolved to protect their turf, long held traditions were shattered, leaving familial assimilation a daunting challenge.  Sorell suggests that “many of these ‘lifeways’ were disrupted and many people died because of the removal.”  No discussion of the Cherokee Nation could possibly fail to mention this dark chapter in American History, and Sorell’s heartfelt reference is a stark reminder of what underscores the indomitable spirit of America’s largest Native American population (over 360,000) and the struggles they face in living off natural resources, even with a number living dual lives as Cherokees and as citizens of the United States.  We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga is a celebration of life’s simple purity, wedding traditionalism with modernity, and via a seasonal presentation recalling the Caldecott Honor winning A Child’s Calendar, a poetical work by John Updike, with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman.

At the outset illustrator Frane Lessac depicts a Cherokee family of five and a dog in a Spring setting as a visual transcription for Sorell’s definition of “Otsaliheliga” which is an expression of gratitude and and an opportunity to “celebrate our blessings” while acknowledging the struggles faced by Cherokee Nation on a daily basis and through the four seasons of the year.  “We Are Grateful” bears a perennial Thanksgiving message expanded to embrace the full run of the calendar.  The first double page canvas is an introduction to the autumn season which Sorell titles as “Uligohvsdi-Fall” atime where leaves fall and temperatures drop.  Lessac’s burn-dished tapestry is resplendent and a reminder to those who love the late September to late November time window why no other time of years is quite as sensory, a time Longfellow likened to Brighter than brightest silks of Samarcand,  And stately oxen harnessed to thy wain!  Thou standest, like imperial Charlemagne,  Upon thy bridge of gold; thy royal hand, Outstretched with benedictions o’er the land.  Lessac is a proven master of leaves, and her gouache on Arches paper illustrations, as always gives her scenes a striking three-dimensional look, bringing readers into a cornucopia of brown orange and yellow read during what is surely the most invigorating season of the year.   This is a time as Sorell again reminds her audience that we must always be grateful for what is essentially at time of great aesthetic and meditative uplift.  Lessac’s busy scene shows the family heading down a wooded path in gleeful leaf immersion temporarily curtailing one boy’s raking intentions.  The dark blue sky brings in the nighttime on the following spread, where “shell shakers dance all night around the fire” during the ‘Great New Moon Ceremony.’  The author doesn’t attempt to place the Cherokee in an idyllic light, admitting like any ethnic people they too have domestic quarrels, but will invariably band together to welcome in the Cherokee New Year which is held four days in October in conjunction with an age-old belief that the world was created during the autumn season.  Again Lessac paints a place of colorful occupation, where modern garb blends with traditional dress in a bustling banquet of common purpose.  The darker background emboldens the illustrator’s phantasmagorical tapestry with heightened contrast.  The finale of the autumnal triptych depicts a gathering of buckbrush and honeysuckle to weave baskets that are posed to “remember our ancestors who suffered hardship and loss on the (aforementioned) Trail of Tears.  A proud Cherokee grandmother (elisi) is featured holding the family’s newest member, an infant boy in a sublime wooded hamlet. Continue Reading »

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by J.D. Lafrance

“I’m disgusted by what we’ve become in America. I truly believe there is brain death in this country.” – John Carpenter

Filmmaker John Carpenter has always considered himself as an outsider in Hollywood. Like Sam Fuller before him, Carpenter makes genre films that are usually regarded by critics as simple thrill rides. However, underneath the surface lurks a strong, often savage social commentary on what Carpenter believes to be the problems that plague the United States. This approach is readily apparent in They Live (1988), an angry film born out of his disgust with the greed and materialism of the Ronald Regan era during the 1980s. What’s interesting is how its scathing critique of homelessness, rampant unemployment and corporate greed has become relevant yet again. Sadly, these problems never really went away, they’ve just become more prevalent due in large part to the current president in the White House.
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by Sam Juliano

Post Halloween means chillier temperatures, leaves all over the place, and Election Day.  The mid-terms are an urgent proposition and Wonders in the Dark urges all of our readers to support the Democrat candidates top to bottom.  Here in the Garden State we have a tough fight to get Senator Bob Menendez elected again but the pollings are looking very good.  School weill be close on said Election Day and on Thursday and Friday for the New Jersey State Teacher’s Convention.

Our great writers Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance have again published superlative reviews this past week, Jim on Winter Light in his continuing Ingmar Bergman series and J.D. with his piece on the original Halloween.

Caldecott Medal winner Brian Floca appeared yesterday afternoon at the 84th Street uptown Books of Wonder to discuss his 2018 picture book gem “Hawk Rising” (authored by Maria Gianferrari along with author Gary Goglio and illustrator Rudy Gutierrez (Carlos Santana); author Leslie Kimmelman (Write On, Irving Berlin!); Illustrator William Low (The Sinking of the Vasa) and author illustrator Meghan McCarthy (All That Trash). Lucille and I were happy to chat with each of the artists, though we are friends with Floca for a long time. Continue Reading »

 

© 2018 by James Clark

 Our film today is, even by the standards of Bergman’s shoot-out-all-the-lights iconoclasm, over the top. Whereas his other films hop to it to embed, near the beginning, uncanny startlements sending out for those on the wild side a shot in the arm for the duration, Winter Light (1962)—its very title a threat to creativity—dares us to keep viewing a tedious melodrama dribbling toward soap opera.

Of course, those few who have found their way to the mother lode of the work’s endeavor, could apply the acrobatics and impossible juggling apparent in absentia. But there is no getting past the thunderous deadness on display, seemingly intent on entrenching an insurrection. Thereby, the viewer has been obliged to muster tons of patience toward the bad old days, in the expectation that this nightmare will end. And end it does, but only at the narrative’s very last scene, where a meek hunchback sexton, Algot, takes aside the reigning clergyman, Tomas, and tells of his discovery that the Bible’s real sense pertains to one sensibility, Jesus, whose sensual virtuosity was never grasped by anyone as realizing that the spirit driving it all has nothing to do with human immortality. After hearing this mountainous and—from the point of view of exegesis, totally daft—heresy, the pastor finds it right on! The only thing left to do with Bergman’s structural acrobatics here is to go back to the beginning in order to savor the singular passion of Tomas.

Let’s start, though, with Algot’s surprising and incisive amateurism. We hear him first, not as a revisionist metaphysician but fussing about his prosaic caretaker duties, which almost magically manage to run to poetry—no small accomplishment, in the wake of our being pelted, over the preceding hour, with routine disappointments. “Those bells rang for twenty seconds too long. Unfortunately I was busy replacing the candles” (seen on-screen to be disorderly but still a feast for sore eyes in the dark church). “ I usually turn on the bells, light the candles and make it back on time. But today I bungled it. An unfortunate mishap. But those candles were tricky to light,” [trickiness being a trope for this campaign—particularly in view of the virtual impossibility of reaching another, importantly; reaching, in a process of “juggling” between prose and poetry, on a basis of uncanny sensual timbre, “acrobatics,” reaching a startling level in the form of Elisabet’s ceasing to speak, in Persona [1966]]. The sexton continues his generous lament, with, “Probably a factory defect,” [the trick that matters not apt to be found on an assembly line]. “And I guess my broken-down body is slowing down my actions. The reason hardly matters.” You’d have to say his broken-down body is doing very well. But “reason,” and its factoids, are—stellar results, notwithstanding— not doing well in their imperial guidance. “I leave the temple in semi-darkness until just before the bells start… I believe electric lights disturb our spirit.” (Algot, an impressive practitioner of “spirit,” would have spent long hours about the timbres of fire and the timbres of electricity. Perhaps his reading of the latter has compromised something new and useful as to “juggling.”) Continue Reading »