by J.D. Lafrance

Growing up in Canada I never fully appreciated Canadian cinema. Oh sure, I liked the films of David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Strange Brew (1983). They were able to break out of the ghetto that is Canadian cinema and actually make an impact in the United States and the rest of the world. It took being in another country to finally appreciate what I took for granted so many years ago. Whenever I got homesick I put on a film like Roadkill (1989), which is fiercely proud of its Canadian culture, and it reminded me of home. Roadkill is the first part of a loosely connected rock ‘n’ roll/road movie trilogy by Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald. The film was something of a breath of fresh air when it debuted as Canadian cinema had, up until then, been traditionally known as notoriously boring or, worse, derivative of its American counterpart. McDonald managed to fuse the low budget aesthetics of the emerging U.S. indie film movement with a distinctively Canadian take on the road movie genre.

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by Sam Juliano

I would not be just a muffin’,
My head all full of stuffin’,
My heart all full of pain           -E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The inveterate bird-scarer known as the scarecrow has been a boon to farmers around the world dating back over 2,500 years to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece.  In feudal Japan they were front line protection for the rice fields, affording security for both newly-planted seeds and the maturing crop.  Inevitably over the years the scarecrow has been the prime protagonist in horror films, where its frightful visage has induced writers to re-imagine this rural symbol as a purveyor of supernatural terror.  Yes children today and those from past generations have a far more benign perception, one based exclusively on the beloved character played by Ray Bolger in the 1939 American film classic The Wizard of Oz.  Based on the first in a children’s series by L. Frank Baum the scarecrow is a good-hearted and intelligent character who wishes he had a brain in a plot where his quick-thinking is vital to the success of the trip to the city where the titular character rules over. In Baum’s book, the famed film version and practically all personifications the scarecrow is initially perceived as one of the loneliest of guardians.  Like Trent in the original Outer Limits’ most celebrated episode “Demon with a Glass Hand” where the robotic creation of mankind must stand watch over the earth’s population who are stored on a glass hand as electrical impulses, he is seemingly doomed to seclusion.  In the poetic new picture book masterwork The Scarecrow by Beth Ferry this all-weather mannequin constructed with straw and work clothes is virtually programmed with one purpose, unencumbered by dual-tasking and unchallenged by anyone or anything looking to complicate his sole mode of existence. Continue Reading »

Screen cap from fabulously stylish murder-mystery “Knives Out”

by Sam Juliano

I trust that everyone stateside had a fabulous Thanksgiving Day as we did in a grand gathering in Butler, New Jersey on Thursday.  Now we move fast steam ahead to the “Happy Holidays” time of the year and all the frantic preparation with a keen eye for what Mother Nature may throw our way.

Lucille, Sammy, Jeremy and I saw four films in theaters over the past two weeks, and aside from the mediocre, though reasonably engaging “Frozen 2” it was a solid batch methinks. Not a single five star movie, but three receive the excellent 4.5 rating, one received the very good 4.0 and one a fine 3.5. “Knives Out” is a stylish murder mystery with mostly terrific performances and red herrings aplenty that is one of the best in its genre in quite a while; “Queen and Slim” is a powerful drama of prejudice, police brutality and betrayal; “Dark Waters” directed by Todd Haynes is for the most part a searing legal drama about the Dupont chemical fiasco that caused the death of numerous people and contaminated the environment, and it features Mark Ruffalo and an impressive cast; “Ford vs. Ferrari” is rather a lightweight affair, but the leads are captivating and film is an undeniably entertaining sports-themed race car movie; “Frozen 2” is a far cry from its beloved predecessor, but still captures some of the general appeal even with a weaker plot.

We visited theaters in northern New Jersey and Manhattan to access this impressive batch:

Knives Out **** 1/2   (Wednesday, Secaucus multiplex)
Queen and Slim **** 1/2  (Friday, Teaneck multiplex)
Dark Waters ****   (Saturday, Cineopolis)
Frozen 2 ****  (Saturday afternoon, Secaucus multiplex)

Jamie Uhler offers up two more superlative entries in his gloriously ongoing 2019 Horror Fest series of capsule reviews: Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

Just a little over three years ago an entry in the 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series featured a resplendent picture book biography on Ana Lovelace titled Ada’s Ideas who was dubbed the world’s first computer programmer.  The work’s author-illustrator Fiona Robinson, a Brooklyn based author-artist, has this past year again explored a prominent female living in a male-dominated age who is widely credited for being the very first person to publish a book of photography.  Robinson’s wholly sublime release The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs bears a number of similarities to the earlier book contextually and in a thematic sense (Anna like Ada was basically reared by a single parent, both of whom ignored the ways of the time by encouraging her education) but Robinson has upped the ante, instilling a profound sensory air to the world’s most popular color.  To achieve the authenticity she sought, Robinson walked through actual English meadows where she took photographs for their initial stage in her amazing illustrative process.  While she developed into a master botanist her claim to fame is the cyanotype,  photographic printing process that produces prints in a distinctive dark greenish-blue. The word “cyan” comes from the Greek, meaning “dark blue substance.” The process was invented by Sir John Herschel, a brilliant astronomer and scientist, in 1842 but Anna expanded to become the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images in addition to, according to some, the first woman to create a photograph.  In the latter half of The Bluest of Blues and in some exceedingly useful end notes Robinson painstakingly defines the process, with stunning end paper shell and seaweed replications that bleed over onto the frontispiece. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

Jim, J.D., Jamie and the rest of the staff here at Wonders in the Dark would like to extend to our friends and readers Thanksgiving Day wishes.  Though Jim and J.D. are Canadians who reside near Toronto, they are no doubt influenced by the stateside infectiousness of this very special time of the year.  As always Lucille and I will be driving up to Butler, New Jersey with the rest of our family on Thursday to her sister’s mansion-sized home to join over fifty other guests for a veritable Turkey Day bonanza.  I am looking forward to the apple and pumpkin pies.  Hoping everyone has their own plans set and will have a safe and relaxing day.

This past week Jim published a brilliant essay on Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna and J.D. posted a fantastic review on Clint Eastwood’s 1993 A Perfect World.  I also would like to thank the Caldecott series readers for responding in a big way via comments and page views to my recent review on Field Trip to the Moon. 

Lucille and I saw one movie in theaters this past week:  A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Matthew Rhys and Tom Hanks in Ridgefield Park on Saturday evening.  My rating is 4.5 of 5.0.  Haunting and beautiful work with a most unique approach.  And I saw it all with only my left eye!

Jamie Uhler’s latest  Horror Fest 2019 review is another jewel: Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

On Star Trek it is referred to as “the final frontier” but humankind has barely scratched the surface in regard to space exploration, and only rarely has an American set foot on our lunar neighbor, the closest celestial sphere to our planet.  Still, it is not at all remotely difficult to envision a time in the not so distant future when Gene Roddenberry’s fantastical vision is no longer inconceivable, even if we are still a very long way from the context of the classic cartoon Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century.  In a captivating wordless picture book titled Field Trip to the Moon by newcomer John Hare a class embarks on a routine venture that is no more startling in concept and execution than a trip to the Stature of Liberty or a science museum.  While destination and mode of transportation are incredulous the time spent on the moon suggest that the native inhabitants bear far more similarities to earthlings than our typical hostile stereotypes would pose.  At its most basic the wholly chimerical Field Trip to the Moon is a story of friendship in one of the last locations one would think it could surface.

The front dust jacket cover, one replicated on the inside hardcover, depicts a smaller-sized class leaving a space station to board a shuttle craft for their day trip to the moon.  One student, later identified as a girl lags behind seemingly mired in deep thought.  First time illustrator Hare negotiates acrylic paints to craft a rich outer space tapestry, with the yellow shuttle at the forefront of the black space, punctuated by the stars.  A “Slow- school zone” marker serves as an amusing retro to the time when such an expedition was unthinkable.  The cover is one of the most striking of any 2019 picture book.  After a dedication/copyright canvas denoting the shuttle approaching its lunar destination the class and its single chaperon gather in a  line to explore as the space craft anchors itself.  The teacher and the eleven students pass through a rocky hamlet, with the extra-inquisitive girl lagging somewhat behind to look at the surrounding more closely. Continue Reading »

 © 2019 by James Clark

      Why do the films of Ingmar Bergman concentrate upon difficulties so few people care about? Some might rush to claim that his genius was all over the most pressing dilemmas of modern life. But although the works do touch upon well-known malaise, what, I think, he was driven to show has never been a serious concern for very many.

Though I recently claimed that all three of the films in the “Island Trilogy,” comprising, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna, could appear with no damage being caused in released or viewing at any order, there is about the third entry, namely, The Passion of Anna (1969), which does go significantly even further into the savagery of cultural venom than the other two. There, Bergman’s dramatic depth finds a hitherto hidden dimension of perversity to imbue us with an added weight going forward. And as we unravel this difficult construction, let’s face the facts about how many viewers are apt to find it compelling; and, therefore, what comportment is valid for these few and besieged seers who do find it riveting.

Andreas Winkelman (“winkel,” denoting a “corner” or “being enclosed by woods”) is a protagonist who, when we first encounter him in the opening scene, we could say that his name is very suitable. He lives in a farm setting, with neither crops nor salient livestock. (A few sheep is all we glimpse.) A voice-over gives his name, and his age, 48. Also, we hear, “He has lived alone for a while in this house on an island out at sea. His roof has been in bad repair for a long time.” (The metaphorical involvement here should not be ignored, particularly as a matter of invasion is about to spring forth.) We find him on that roof, with slate and mortar, clearly not being a gifted roofer. His face is contorted; and then another demand brightens his day. The winter sky delivers to his unsteady perch a sun comprising the fireball, but also a complementary flare involving a small cloud of rose and grey hue. We never again see him appreciating such a mystical moment. But we’ll have myriad opportunities to understand that Andreas, though a middling construction worker, is a devotee of the uncanny—unlike the easily distracted musician couple in Shame and the painter in Hour of the Wolf. Continue Reading »