Archive for November, 2014

Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin

This review, originally published in March of this year, is the thirty-first in the continuing Allan Fish Bonanza Encore series at Wonders in the Dark.

by Allan Fish

(UK 2013 108m) DVD1/2

The girl who fell to earth

Nick Wechsler, James Wilson  d  Jonathan Glazer  w  Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell  novel  Michel Faber  ph  Daniel Landin  ed  Paul Watts  m  Mica Levi art  Chris Oddy

Scarlett Johansson (Laura), Paul Brannigan (Andrew), Jessica Mance (alien), Krystof Hádek (swimmer), Scott Dymond, Michael Moreland,

After watching Under the Skin Mark Cousins tweeted “if movies hadn’t evolved out of other art forms, like the novel or theatre, what would they have looked like?  Like Under the Skin.”  Ne’er a truer word was tweeted, and yet it’s a statement that also gets to the heart of why the film was always going to be so divisive.  Many film writers, critics and commentators and the vast majority of audiences are set in their ways.  They like their films to have a linear narrative.  They can jump forward and back in time, so long as they explain everything by the end credits.  Under the Skin is a film that is happy to explain nothing.  It revels in its ambiguity.  To appreciate it one has to take a quantum leap, not to wonder what will happen next but to wonder what we will see next.  (more…)

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mayflower 2

by Sam Juliano

The story of how the Pilgrims traveled to America on the Mayflower usually commands a full chapter in all middle school history textbooks.  It is one of the most celebrated events in the nation’s history, certainly commanding the same kind of reverence as the arrival of Columbus, the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s assassination.  Yet the documentary feel of the subject often leaves students either bored or indifferent to the fundamentals involving a trip across the Atlantic by people, who, by their very nature quietly committed to the task at hand, rather than moving forward with an adventurous spirit.  As a result texts usually steer clear of the humanity behind this monumental venture, in favor of a timeline narrative.  Ironically a non-American, Mark Greenwood, who hails and resides in western Australia, has engagingly examined the pulse of the 102 Puritans who in 1620 decided to defy the edicts of the King of England and find a place where they could worship without scrutiny.  In the new picture book release aptly titled The Mayflower, Greenwood has collaborated again with his erstwhile artist and wife Frane Lessac to bring a timeworn story to life with the deft fusion of concise and kid-friendly prose with wholly exquisite folksy art negotiated in gouache. (more…)

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 © 2014 by James Clark

      The first episode of Nights of Cabiria (1957) is a crime melodrama so offbeat it could almost be science fiction. We see in the middle distance a diminutive woman, in a white dress with horizontal black waves, zigging and zagging and shimmying backwards in bright sunlight across the nondescript scrub and debris land of the outskirts of Rome, in the throes of the money-mad developments of the post-War “Economic Miracle.” It is impossible not to be struck by the ebullience of her actions, showering affectionate playfulness upon a male friend in stylish shades not a party to her kinetic imperatives. They come to the Tiber and, like a one-track insect, he elbows her into its blazing current, not forgetting to come away with her purse which, just seconds before, she had twirled in a wide orbit. Though she was a player in good standing when it came to gracing terra firma, we immediately realize she’s a non-swimmer (her arms and hands describing graceful but nonetheless hapless arabesques into the river run which has all but swallowed for good the rest of her body). In a spirited effort she brings her head to light and screams for help. Children (one of them in a North American Indian headdress) playing along the river bank hear this and rush to do what they can to save her. One of them remarks, “If she gets to the sewer she won’t get up again!” (Hold that thought.) A well-dressed passer-by takes off his suit jacket and then, applying some of the rationality that took him this far, puts it back on and (after demanding an inventory of possible rescuers in the vicinity) cuts out. Less formally dressed men supplement the children’s efforts in diving into the menacing dynamics of the river and getting her to shore, by beginning to apply artificial respiration. As they hold her upside down (her spiffy shift now miserably soaked and dirty) and find reason to enthuse in her emitting water from her lungs and mouth, a woman standing nearby bites her fist (her face and eyes almost drowned in anxiety about the victim’s difficulties and prospects, but also in distress about a close encounter with death). (more…)

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the iridescence of birds

by Sam Juliano

From the moment one first lays eyes on the ravishing dust jacket cover of Patricia MacLachlan’s wholly sublime  The Iridescence of Birds there is a real sense of mission for educators wishing to expand a young child’s scholastic horizons in a single day, indeed during the course of a single reading.  The often arresting picture book is the third much-heralded release in the past two years  to focus on a celebrated painter, (Jennifer Bryant and Melissa Sweet collaborated on A Splash of Red in 2013, and this year Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor published a picture book on Edward Hopper), though the famed Ms. MacLachlan – a Newbery Medal winner for the beloved Sarah, Plain and Tall – lovingly relates a childhood of maternal inspiration and the telling contrast of a damp and dreary town that gives way to natural beauty and rich palettes behind closed doors.  Her subject is the renowned painter Henri Matisse, who actually took up painting while recovering from appendicitis, and while MacLachlan isn’t specific.  her prose, spare and poetic, persuasively frames his art as something both inherent and nurtured.  Yet the mission is a simpler one than just introducing children to a venerated artist.  It is one of learning a new and challenging word, that lies at the center of the book’s theme: what is the meaning of iridescence? (more…)

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In 1998, 22 year-old Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, beaten, and tied to a fence on a Wyoming prairie and left to die because he was gay. His death a week later incited outrage worldwide, and he is now a public symbol of prejudice and intolerance. A wrenching documentary by Michele Josue was the closing feature at the NYDC Festival, and Shepard’s parents Judy and Dennis were there to offer a Q & A. They are pictured here flanking my 12 year-old son Jeremy, and our friend Broadway Bob Eagleson. Lucille, Jeremy, Bob and I attended the screening of the film Thursday.



by Sam Juliano

Turkey Day is upon us, though some of our friends in the midwest are mired in high inch snow totals.  Winter may be a month away, but it has made some unwelcome early appearances around the nation.  In any event the staff here at Wonders in the Dark would like to wish all our friends and associates a wonderful holiday.  For the 22nd year consecutively our own family will be traveling up to Butler, New Jersey, the home of Lucille’s sister and her family.  The gathering up there totals about 60 people, but the house is practically mansion-size.

Posts at the site for the coming months are pretty much set–Jim Clark’s superlative film essays every other Wednesday, a continuing roll out of the Allan Fish Bonanza Encore Series and the Caldecott Contender picture book series until the awards are announced around mid-January.  The next film countdown is tentatively planned for May of 2015 -Greatest/Favorite Films About Childhood – but we have a long way to go and won’t be even dealing with ballots until late March.

As December approaches we can expect all the critics’ ten-best lists, year-end awards and some long-awaited prestigious hits set to open in theaters.  I have been keeping abreast of the openings and have accelerated my movie-going pace. (more…)

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This review of ‘The Big Combo’ is the thirtieth in the continuing Allan Fish Bonanza Encore series at Wonders in the Dark.

by Allan Fish

(USA 1955 89m) DVD1/2 (Spain only)

First is first and second is nobody

p  Sidney Harrison  d  Joseph H.Lewis  w  Dalton Trumbo  ph  John Alton  ed  Robert S.Eisen  m  David Raksin  art  Rudi Feld

Cornel Wilde (Lt.Leonard Diamond), Richard Conte (Mr Brown), Brian Donlevy (Joe McClure), Jean Wallace (Susan Lowell), Robert Middleton (Capt.Peterson), Helen Walker (Alicia Brown), Ted de Corsia (Ralph Bettini), Lee Van Cleef (Fanty), Earl Holliman (Mingo), John Hoyt (Nils Dreyer), Jay Adler (Det.Sam Hill),

One of the last great hurrahs of American noir and one of the pivotal films of the 1950s in the depiction of screen violence, The Big Combo is a film that gets more and more enjoyable with each passing year.  Six years after his masterpiece Gun Crazy, Combo probably doesn’t quite match its predecessor, but there’s so much to enjoy, so much to revel in, that it comes pretty darn close to matching it.

Lieutenant Diamond is a thirty-something detective who’s spending too much money for his sympathetic captain’s liking trying to achieve the impossible.  His target is the enigmatically named Mr Brown, the head of an organised crime racket in New York known as ‘The Combination’.  With the help of his former boss, Joe McClure, now affected with hearing problems and forced to pay lip service to Brown, and two favourite hoodlums, Fanty and Mingo, he runs things in New York.  Diamond tails his girl, Susan, in an attempt to get some information, but when she attempts suicide, Brown starts to get annoyed by the Lieutenant’s harassment and steps up the heat himself.  Diamond comes to realise that there’s a dark secret in Brown’s past, which may revolve around his missing wife, Alicia, an anchor, and his equally conspicuous by his absence partner Grazzi, who had led the Combination back in the old Prohibition days. (more…)

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firefly july

by Sam Juliano

Children’s picture book artist extraordinaire Melissa Sweet has illustrated nearly a hundred books in a prolific career, but the last few years she has come into her own in spectacular fashion.  In 2008 she won a Caldecott Honor for her arresting mixed-media collages in the sublime picture book biography of poet William Carlos Williams, A River of Words, written by Jennider Bryant.  She won the 2012 Siebert Medal for her intricate and impeccably-researched Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, which profiled Tony Sarg and the celebrated helium balloons synonymous with the famed department store’s festive event.  She soon teamed up with Bryant again for another ravishing biography, A Splash of Red, which lovingly chronicled the inspirational life and work of the painter Horace Pippin.  In that book the artist used watercolor and gouache to stunning effect.  In 2014 she showed herself to be at the peak of her powers with two masterpieces – another biographical collaboration with Bryant on Peter Mark Roget, the father of the thesaurus, titled The Right Word, and earlier in the year, a partnership with the poet Paul B. Janeczko that yielded one of the most spectacular and lyrical picture books in years. (more…)

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