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Archive for November, 2016

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 © 2016 by James Clark 

      Broken Flowers, the Jarmusch film from 2005, has introduced, quite startlingly for a project concerning crushing problematics, a figure who is not hopelessly lost. Carmen, the “animal communicator,” whom protagonist Don regards as having lost her once impressive (to him) rational acuity (as a lawyer), sends him on his way as understood to be a total waste of her time. What makes her so sure of this? The actions of Lone Man, in the film, The Limits of Control (2009), contribute to that understanding, though his career has much more in common with that of the contract killer, Ghost Dog, in the 1999 Jarmusch production of the same name.

Over the past several postings, I have highlighted recurrent pluses and minuses enacted in this filmmaker’s work (and recurrent performers), in witty and heartfelt scenarios, for the sake of awakening viewers to a dilemma like no other, and which would sustain the essential drama far beyond the theatre. Once again, as we get to the nub of The Limits of Control, these currents must be shown in action. But here, instead of concentrating almost entirely upon detailing patterns and personas amid socio-economic preoccupations in the service of reiterating that life on earth is not nearly as lively as it could be, we’ll also look to the cinematography, visual and sonic design and performance as marshalled as never before in a Jim Jarmusch film, in order to embrace the love and ruthlessness evinced by Carmen, and being given a go here by a flamenco troupe, an always-nude hooker and a killer devoted to tai chi. (A very significant shift in sensual delivery appears in the form of the camera work of the brilliant exponent of mood, Christopher Doyle—having lifted many viewers of major works by Wong Kar Wai—replacing here the tenure of Robby Muller, Jarmusch’s long-time stalwart on behalf of kookiness.) (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The Brothers Grimm meet film noir and the silent cinema’s German Expressionism in a dazzling graphic novel and gender bender titled Snow White by Matt Phelan.  Show business, the Ziegfeld Follies, and the onset of the Great Depression  after the thriving Roaring Twenties are woven into a wholly irresistible updating of the most beautiful girl in the land and her seven protectors that begins in Manhattan’s Central Park in the winter of 1918, less than a year after the end of the First World War.   Though the ink and watercolor paintings are wildly diverse and comic book in style the palette mixes sepia tone with conventional black and white, much like the silent cinema of the period.  The sparing use of red impacts the book’s themes dramatically, and when full color appears late in the book its use is celebratory.

Snow White’s opening, which segues into a nearly book-long flashback recalls two of film noir’s most iconic works, Robert Siodmak’s 1946 The Killers  and Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Boulevard, when the leading men are either dead or will be killed within minutes, and the remainder of the films document how they came to be doomed.  The NYPD crime scene tape cordons off the area around a glass coffin, and investigators attempt to pry vital information from a gang of seven who resemble the Dead End kids.  After asking what is going on, and who is the victim, one boy welling up with tears is only able to offer up three words: White as snow.   (more…)

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Joe Dante’s Matinee

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by J.D. Lafrance

“Going to the movies is sort of like going to church for me. When the lights went down I would be as likely to stay for a double feature as I would be to just go home.” – Joe Dante

Much like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), Joe Dante’s film Matinee (1993) is not only a love letter to cinema, but also a celebration of watching movies – the collective experience of seeing a film in a darkened movie theater with others. However, Dante’s film is more than that. It is also a period piece that recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought Russia and the United States to the brink of nuclear war. He filters this through a coming-of-age story as seen through the eyes of a boy who lives in close proximity to this volatile situation.

Dante is a life-long movie buff with many of his own films paying homage to 1950s science fiction and horror B-movies, but filtered through the prism of 1960s radicalism. In fact, he got his start working with these kinds of movies thanks to mogul Roger Corman and gradually worked his way up through the system until he was directing studio fare like Gremlins (1984) and Innerspace (1987). Matinee is arguably Dante’s most personal film to date, a passion project that he cultivated for years until Universal gave him the money to realize it. The film was given a wide release, but much like Ed Wood, it underperformed at the box office, appealing mostly to fellow cineastes.
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by Sam Juliano

An iconic photograph titled “Harlem 1958” is the inspiration for a vigorous, high-octane picture book, Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, by Roxane Orgill, with illustrations by Francis Vallejo.  In an engaging introduction Orgill explains how a graphic designer and jazz aficionado Art Kane – who worked at Esquire Magazine – successfully sorted out against all reasonable odds the negotiation of the shot on a cordoned off 126th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues in Manhattan on Tuesday, August 12th.  Esquire’s concerted effort in notifying musician’s unions and making contact with anyone connected to jazz players helped make this dream photograph materialize when attendance exceeded all reasonable expectations.  According to Orgill, Kane borrowed two cameras, one a Contrax 35 millimeter.  The shoot ran to almost five hours, as neighborhood  teenagers engaged in harassing mischief.  The author also reports that not all of the participants were or became famous, and that Jazz legend Duke Ellington was not on board.  Orgill’s detailed delineation of the facts surrounding this remarkable effort are wholly fascinating and they served to both broadly supplement the spirit  imparted in her own poetry -and the astounding art by Vallejo, whose first picture book this is – and but to serve as a singular inspiration for readers to embark on a listening journey of America’s most emblematic musical form.  As a treat for Jazz Day investigators, the full fold out of one of the most famous photos in American culture is showcased in all its pristine glory before a fantastic wealth of biographical supplements that include capsules of some of the most famous artists who appear before the camera. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

With Turkey Day 2016 now part of history we move on to the Christmas season and a month of year-end awards and lists in all the arts.  Concurrently this is for most the busiest time of the year, one dominated by store and on-line shopping and traffics jams all over the place.  The Caldecott Medal Contender series continues to move forward, and I wished to thank all those who have placed comments and/or have read any of the seventeen essays that have been published so far.  The project will continue until the last week of January.

Lucille, Jeremy and I attended two book presentations in Manhattan on Saturday that featured author-illustrators Jerry Pinkney, Melissa sweet, Evan Turk, Pamela Zagrenski, Ron Barrett, Kuniko Y. Craft. Eric Dominguez and Julie Fogliano.  We also saw one new movie release in theaters, and traveled up to Sussex County to pick up our Christmas tree at a farm.  As always a fun family experience. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Lisa Brown’s The Airport Book is a study in words, pictures and voice bubbles of the unique experience of traveling on a plane.  Specifically it chronicles the fast and furious pace that greets an interracial family of four from the moment they wake to complete the packing of their suitcases, on through the taxi ride to the airport , and the seeming mass confusion and endless lines that invariably challenge even the most patient of passengers.  Brown’s vision of a travel day is one rife with confusion, tight security, and long lines that inform each and every new step of preparation leading up to takeoff.  People of all ages, races and vocations are united in their enlistment for air travel, and no matter what walk of life one hails from they must all play by the same rules.  Much like a visit to a theme park, or a tour of our nation’s capital every requirement or imperative activity requires toiling on a line from the moment one enters the airport.  Brown’s vibrant and vivid India ink and watercolor on paper vignettes project urgency, but also a measure of exhilaration.  Aside from business travelers who spend a good part of their weeks in the air, planes are filled by first-time passengers, those who rarely fly and some that may board maybe once or twice a year.

Brown sets her travel day in motion by spotting some of the family members in their apartment house on the end papers.  The boy is readying for a shower while the young girl is seen with her sock monkey.  Throughout the book she haunt the rest of her family for its whereabouts in a narrative thread that recalls Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny.  Mom and Dad hasten the pace before entering a taxi that takes them over a “flat ground” highway during a cloudburst to an international airport, which intimates their geographical destination.  Upon arrival on the departure deck the air is prevalent with emotional send-offs, physical embraces and tears.  Curbside check-in includes some items -like a violin case – as easily discernible, while other makeshift pieces are insoluble.   A crosswalk procession features travelers with carry-ons, cases on wheels and backpacks, while the age old airport declaration of insecurity is heard in an air shuttle when a wife curtly asks her husband if he remembered the tickets, to which he responds in the affirmative.  Meanwhile our quartet of adventurers, having checked in are heading inside. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Chickens are far more intelligent and cognitively sophisticated than previously believed. Recent studies have resulted in findings that assert they are able to recognize faces and remember voices, even in the case of people who have long been absent.  Furthermore, this cognitive process involved in representational thinking in chickens is similar to those required for associate learning in humans. When one considers that about ninety-nine per cent of all animals killed for food in the United States comes from the combined chicken and turkey fraternities, one is left with a profound sadness that includes even those who partake in the consumption.  Children’s literature has always held the chicken in high intellectual regard, and favorites like Chicken Little, The Little Red Hen and Click Clack Moo show them as enterprising and purposeful.  The British animated film Chicken Run, features a band of chickens who pin their hopes on a smooth-talking Rhode Island Red to help avert their death at the hands of their farm owners, who are looking to convert from selling eggs to chicken pot pies.

In a soulful picture book Preaching to the Chickens the acclaimed writer Jabari Asim has disseminated these human qualities on a flock of barnyard fowl in adherence to a real-life ritual from the childhood of a famed civil rights activist.  Indeed, Asim admits in an afterward that he was always a fervent admirer of John Lewis whose “brave participation as an original member of the Freedom Riders – Americans who in 1961 rode buses into the Deep South to protest the segregation of black and white travelers who were forced to sit on separate benches and drink from separate fountains – bellied the struggle to achieve equality for all.  Asim further relates that he was proud to meet Lewis shortly after reading his powerfully vivid memoir Walking with the Wind, a personal account of the harrowing events that led to long overdue social freedoms.  But it was the passages in the memoir that documented Lewis’ childhood in Pike County, Alabama that moved the author to create his own work, one primarily aimed at an impressionable audience.  Lewis dreamed of becoming a preacher and of moving audiences with powerful sermons.  He found just the captive audience he was looking for in a riveted congregation of chickens “who would sit very quietly moving their heads back and forth” fully attuned to the voice delivering the daily oratories. (more…)

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Home for the Holidays

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By J.D. Lafrance

Christmas holiday movies are a dime a dozen but how many Thanksgiving movies are there? Sure, many are set during this holiday but Home for the Holidays (1995) is the Thanksgiving movie. Director Jodie Foster captures the hassle and the horror of traveling during the holidays and presents an instantly relatable premise: going home for Thanksgiving dinner and having to put up with your relatives. Everyone has been stuck next to that annoying person on a long plane ride or have had to deal with a crowded airport or stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Everybody has a Thanksgiving history and stories that go with it. Home for the Holidays collects several of these stories into one entertaining movie.
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by Sam Juliano

Inventing instruments wasn’t easy.  But they fiddled around, discovering which materials hit the right notes.  They transformed oil drums into cellos, water pipes into flutes, and packing crates into guitars.                         -Susan Hood

There could hardly be a more inauspicious setting for a child growing up than in a town sitting adjacent to a land fill in a third world country.  Surrounded by squalor and extreme economic impoverishment families faced the bleakest prospects for security and well-being, if indeed survival was in the cards for some.  In many towns such dire conditions invariably lead to crime, drugs and even worse.  Gangs have been known to take the law into their own hands, and violence in such hapless neighborhoods is a regular occurrence.  The 2002 Brazilian film City of God by Fernando Meirelles depicted a Rio de Janeiro district overcome by a drug trade that enlisted the services of children.  Many books and other films have sordidly chronicled this social plight, one where expressions like “Only the strong survive” and “the survival of the fittest” have been validates by a series of unconscionable events.  Once in a great while you do hear of stories of some enterprising youths beating the odds, and finding joy and creativity from the seemingly losing hands they were dealt, and some of the times the arc is from rags to riches as is the case with kids from dirt poor families finding out they possess enormous athletic potential.

In the afterward of Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, a non-fiction picture book written by Susan Hood, the most extreme picture of abject poverty is painted in the town of Cateura, which functionally serves as the garbage dump for Paraguay’s capital and largest city, Asuncion, which lies on a border with Argentina.  Hood reveals that this geographical aberration is “one of the poorest slums in all of South America” and that astoundingly “twenty thousand people live there on less than two dollars a day”.  The author further adds another incredulous statistic for the reader: “They endure fourteen hour days picking through the trash in the landfill to find things they can recycle and sell.”  The book’s resilient heroine, Ada Rios is immediately established as someone who believes in that light at the end of the tunnel.  The garbage dump did after all give opportunity for recyclers -known as gancheros to scour through the refuse to earn five cents for a pound of cardboard and ten cents for plastic, and Ada’s thoughts were enlivened by the memories of her father finding “appliances, toys, perfumes and antique watches” and a woman lucking into a box of jewelry.  Ada, her younger sister Noelia and the other friends in their circle of hope saw every arriving garbage truck as a potential opportunity for coming upon something of value. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Happy Turkey Day 2016 to all our friends and readers stateside.  For some a time to catch up with music, films, theater and literature, for others a time to unwind and meditate.  Sports fans have the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day and those preferring to take advantage of the extra time have a plethora of quality new film releases in the theaters.  We at Wonders in the Dark would like to wish everyone stateside a happy and healthy Thanksgiving and those overseas a great week in every regard.

On Sunday at the Bank Street Bookstore in Manhattan Lucille, Sammy, Jeremy and I met up with esteemed author Heather Lang and famed illustrator Raul Colon to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ruth Law’s record-breaking plane flight. The duo treated an impressive gathering to a theatrical book reading of the masterful FEARLESS FLYER (a Caldecott Contender series review was posted on it weeks back at WitD) along with some original sketch drawings by Colon for the audience to enjoy.  On Friday night Lucille, Sammy and I attended the first concert of the 2016-17 season by the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra on Friday night at the West Side Presbyterian Church on S. Monroe Street. Under the baton of Conductor Diane Wittry, the ensemble performed spirited readings of Tchaikovsky’s celebrated Fifth Symphony and Violin Concerto (on original instrument) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s seminal “Russian Easter Overture”. (more…)

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