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Archive for August, 2018

 © 2018 by James Clark

      Sometimes it pays to be ridiculously late. Years ago, I saw two or three of the films of Claire Denis, and  wrote them off (figuratively) as overwrought, Grand Guignol melodramas pertaining to the outrageous predations upon Africans. Failing to heed the well-known predilection of auteurs to sermonize bullshit about their efforts seeing eye-to-eye with politically correct dullards, I left that hidden and unbeknownst treasure to pursue the singularities of quite untrammeled sensibility within the wheelhouses of the likes of Wong Kar Wai, for instance (his, Happy Together [1997], recently posted).

Having also been a latecomer to the skills of Ingmar Bergman, there were notions about Denis’ extremities which began to make much more sense. Since her film, White Material (2010), is copiously woven with the cosmic elements to be seen in Bergman’s, The Seventh Seal (1957), that seems to be a good starting point. It is fearlessness, not salvation, being the essence of Bergman’s work; and it is fearlessness, not foreign aid, of the essence of Denis’ work. Therefore, our first step has to do with our protagonist, Maria, tempting the fates by refusing to get away from the collision of rebel and French colonial militia forces in mid-century Africa. At a road on her coffee plantation she is visited by a hovering French Army helicopter, from which the following one-way dialogue screams: “Madame Vial! The French Army is pulling out! We’re leaving! You’ll be completely cut off! Think it over, Madame Vial! Think of your family… We’re pulling out… You must leave immediately.” Madame Vial swishes away as best she can the reddish soil kicked up by the chopper, which resembles a dinosaur, especially its image as a shadow in flight (a fossil), a commotion whose time has passed in a peculiar way. The retreaters shower down many black containers with the words, “Survival Kit,” prominently inscribed. Maria, after lifting one up, tosses it away contemptuously. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

In the early 1980s it must’ve seemed like a crazy idea to mix several contemporary actors with clips from classic films into something resembling a coherent story. Even now it seems like a pretty wild idea and one with few antecedents (Kung Pow! Enter the Fist is the only one that comes immediately to mind). But director Carl Reiner and comedian Steve Martin had the chutzpah to give it a try with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a comedy that simultaneously pays tribute to and affectionately parodies film noirs from the 1940s and 1950s. Only a few years earlier, Reiner and Martin hit comedic pay dirt with The Jerk (1979) and so anticipation was high for this new collaboration. The result was a rare cinematic experiment that was viewed by some as lazy filmmaking and a clever homage by others.
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by Sam Juliano

Summer 2018 is close to becoming a statistic with the new school year, football, autumn leaves and horror film lovers all sending notice that their time of the year is imminent.  Here at Wonders in the Dark, the film duties have been handles spectacularly well by Canadians Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance, with Yours Truly ready to step in soon with my sixth annual Caldecott Medal Contender Series, which consider’s the year’s children’s books.

Lucille and I with our five children spent eight days in Sunset Beach, North Carolina from August 12th till the 20th, and has a mighty fine time all things considered, though we did have a harrowing five hour span on Thursday the 16th trying to find our miniature pincher who dashed out the door after my younger daughter, whom he is glued to, left to swim in the complex pool.  We finally before dark through astonishing luck secured the dog with my daughter’s vital assistance before darkness set in.

The reviews have been extraordinary, but I was still somewhat skeptical heading into “Crazy Rich Asians” last night at a local theater. Yet, this fireworks display of familial crisis, accented with swirling color, captivating music and spirited performances including one from 91 year-old Lisa Lu playing the family matriarch, align to produce a gleefully engaging movie, effervescent and enormously appealing to its core. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Michigan educator and picture book author Jordan J. Scavone launched his writing career a few years back with the superhero concept book Might-E, a spirited collaboration with Caitlyn Knepka chronicling young Emma who dreamed of herself as a cape wearing superhero, the very antithesis of who she actually was, an easily frightened toddler reduced to sucking on a pacifier in a toy room.  The central theme of confidence building is again a central thrust in The Mud Princess, a fairy tale about Georgia, a free spirit who is as adverse to conformity as she is undaunted by the inevitable scorn and derision that will greet one who plays by their own rules.

Scavone’s enchanting fable is a hybrid of Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and the Caldecott Honor winning The Talking Eggs by Robert San Souci and Jerry Pinkney, works that stress self reliance and just rewards.  Scavone’s illustrative partner this time around is a hair stylist and freelance artist named Monica Guignard, who brings a sturdy measure of saturated watercolor resplendence to a story dominated by fantastical places and mythological fixtures. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

“Do you think I’m going to see him standing in the street and say, ‘there he is.’ That’s Houdini you’re thinking about. Toothy Fairy’s going to go on until we get smart or get lucky. He won’t stop…He’s got a genuine taste for it.” — Will Graham

Before Jonathan Demme’s Academy Award winning The Silence of the Lambs (1992) graced the screen with Anthony Hopkins in all of his visceral glory, Michael Mann’s little remembered (and seen) thriller, Manhunter (1986) presented a very different kind of Hannibal Lector. While Demme’s film opted for over-the-top performances and needlessly gory scenes of violence, Mann’s film took a subtler, creepier approach to its material. Manhunter is less interested in depicting the actual killings (the main attraction of this genre when it became popular) than in the cerebral and actual legwork required to enter the killer’s frame of mind and track him down.
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By J.D. Lafrance

Sam Peckinpah spent his career fighting against the Hollywood studio system to make his own distinctive brand of films. Out of all the ones he made only on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) was he given final cut privileges. The film is the epitome of a grungy nihilism that was in vogue with many American filmmakers during the 1970s with Peckinpah leading the charge in 1969 with the explosive deconstruction of the western that was The Wild Bunch. Coupled with his love affair with the country of Mexico, the veteran director created a deeply personal film that alienated critics and mainstream audiences alike back in the day, but has gone on to become one of his most highly regarded films.
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by Sam Juliano

My family will be departing New Jersey for the NC/SC border (Sunset Beach, just minutes from Myrtle Beach) very early Monday morning, so I won’t be seeing this MMD until I check it on a laptop on Monday evening.  The sad but inevitable passing of the 50 year old son of good Fairview friends from returning cancer resulted in our delaying our planned Sunday morning exit so we could attend today’s wake.  Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance, two gifted Canadians will continue to pen fabulous film reviews moving forward.  Clark’s staggering essay on Wong Kar Wai’s “Happy Together” posted this past week.

The summer has been alternately scorching and rainy in this Metropolitan area in northeastern NJ across the river from Manhattan, but the fact that only three weeks remain before September and the start of the new school year is startling.  The Halloween Horror series, usually engineered by Jamie Uhler as an e mail endeavor will be posted on future MMDs as we approach that always entertaining time of the year.

Two exceptional films (both would rate 4.5 of 5.0 for me) were watched this weekend in Secaucus and Edgewater. An African-American played by John David Washington infiltrates the local KKK in Colorado Springs in 1972 based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth. There are admittedly tonal inconsistencies in “Blackkklansman”, but acting (especially by Washington and Adam Driver) and writing are excellent, and this is Spike Lee’s most entertaining and provocative film in years. The director includes a telling video of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and footage of Trump’s patronizing commentary. Newcomer Bo Burnham’s maiden coming-of-age feature “Eighth Grade” is a gem, and remarkable in the way it perceptively and intimately probes the psych and social media hankering of a girl during the final year of her middle school tenure living with a doting father who is confronted with the inevitable communication problems. Young Elsie Fisher delivers a brilliant performance as Kayla. Both films deserve year-end scrutiny when Best of lists are sorted out. (more…)

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