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Archive for November, 2018

“A fellow said, ‘We must never forget that we are human. And as humans we must dream. And when we dream we dream of money.”

This line of dialogue is spoken early on in The Spanish Prisoner (1998) and establishes one of the most important themes of David Mamet’s film: greed. The allure of money is what motivates all of the characters in the film save one – its protagonist, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott). He is not only at the mercy of other people’s greed but also their deception, which is another significant theme of this film.

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by Sam Juliano

If Terence Malick signed on to make a movie for Pixar the result would be the cinematic equivalent of the Fan Brothers’ rapturous Ocean Meets Sky, a picture book with pronounced metaphysical heft.  There is of course an infinite implication in the book’s central proposition, which suspends the physical properties that govern the fish in the sea and the animals and castles on the land.  With fantastical end papers and inside cover, the latter with gold embossed figures on dark blue, Ocean Meets Sky’s mise en scene plumbs the furthest reach of the imagination, a place where rules have yielded to celestial anarchy, where the mind has erased all previous conceptions with Lewis Carroll-styled aplomb.  The acclaimed creators of The Night Gardener and The Antlered Ship, two previous Caldecott Medal contenders, Eric and Terry Fan, have populated the pages of their wondrous work with breathtaking images, done in graphite and colored digitally daring readers to discover any place on Earth or within the confines of the mind’s eye to find anything more eye-popping or spectacular.  To that end their latest work, resplendent and exhilarating even by their own standards is one of 2018’s most splendorous achievements and by any barometer of measurement a major player in the Caldecott race.

After a striking title page spread with a compass configuration and the boy and his mom at the seashore, Finn, like the author Alan Say in the deeply-poignant Caldecott Medal winner Grandfather’s Journey treasures the relationship he had with the beloved family patriarch.  One morning as the intrepid youngster looks out his bedroom window in a house along the sea he recalls his granddad’s one-time beckoning, “It’s a good day for sailing.”   A toy boat, a framed photo and a sea cap suggest the foundation of a story that is ripe to be re-told.  In a brown-tinted tapestry Finn remembers his go-teed mentor who remembered a place where the ocean meets the sky and in a present day equivalent a room with colorful decor and some telling it is learned the grandfather would have been ninety this very day, making this remembrance one with a kind of spectral force.  This markedly resourceful boy builds a boat that will stand up to a long journey, one the author says was on the drawing board when the then octogenarian was still alive.  A series of delightful vignettes chronicle the work in progress and then the boy is whisked off is a scenario that affectionately recalls Max’s nocturnal journey in Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are.   With the voyage underway under a sky of live and inanimate objects like a sailor’s pipe and an anchor that for some will envision David Wiesner’s nebulous Caldecott Honor winning Sector 7 the boy is initially disdained by the loneliness until he connects with an enormous golden fish.  Their conversation for fairy tale lovers will recollect “The Fisherman and His Wife” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, a story a bout a King flounder who grants many wishes to a greedy wife in return for a poor fisherman’s mercy in setting him free.  However the Fan’s’ fish has a much different purpose, which is to guide the boy to his distance-defying destination.  It’s high and low, and as deep as the sea,” the fish answered in a voice that made Finn’s boat shake.  It’s up and down and very far.  I can show you the way.” (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

This week we lost two cinematic titans, Bernardo Bertolucci and Nicolas Roeg at 77 and 90 respectively.  Readers are encouraged to talk about their work and incalculable influence.  My own favorite Bertolucci is The Conformist, my own favorite contribution from Roeg is his cinematography on The Masque of the Red Death.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in both cases!  R.I.P.

Thanksgiving Day 2018 is now in the history books in more ways than one.  The day registered one of the coldest ever in the Metropolitan region, but of course we told by our fearless leader that there is no such thing as climate change.  Our family had a grand day at the mansion-like home of the Lampmann family where we convened for the twenty-fifth year in a row to enjoy a generous traditional spread, a lavish desert table and second meal later in the night of all sorts of finger foods.  I wasn’t so thrilled that the Cowboys beat the Redskins, but heck that wasn’t exactly high on a list of priorities.  This past week at Wonders in the Dark J.D. Lafrance published a splendid review on the classic American film The World of Henry Orient by George Roy Hill.  My own latest Caldecott Medal Contender review on the Fan Brothers’ Ocean Meets Sky is publishing today.

Our long time friend, film blogger and author David Schleicher has published his second novel, Then Came Darkness, a noirish work set in upstate New York in the summer of 1936.  The dark tale of revenge features Joshua Bloomfield, who is driven by greed and the believe that an inheritance was rightfully his.  Evelyn Kydd must find a way to survive the malignant advance.  Congratulations David, and best wishes with your new work!  We are all proud of you!

The past week has been one of serious movie madness.  Lucille, Sammy, Jeremy and I saw five acclaimed new releases in the theaters.  Here are my reports and star ratings:

Thanksgiving week movie masterpieces! Lucille, the boys and I saw three of the very best films of 2018 over the past days in Manhattan. ROMA (Alfonso Cuaron) is a monochrome epic filmed and set in Mexico during the late 60s and early 70s. The Felliniesque story of a family who endure the trials and tribulations of life is alternately funny, pensive and sad, in the end a focused and scintillating drama. Yalitza Aparicio as the maid Cleo is magnificent. (5/5). THE FAVOURITE (Yorgos Lanthimos) is a deliciously perverse Irish/English period piece set in the court of Queen Anne and featuring extraordinary performances by Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone is also highlighted by a ravishing. baroque score and set design. Lanthimos, adapting another’s work has never been more accessible. (5/5). The South Korean film BURNING by Lee Chang-Dong (Poetry) is a controlled, eerie and disconcerting mystery/drama, culturally observant and psychologically nuanced. One of the most quietly enveloping of films. (4.5/5) We saw ROMA at the IFC Film Center, THE FAVOURITE at the Regal and BURNING at the Quad. (Tonight we will be seeing the Japanese “The Shoplifters at 7:00 at IFC). (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

George Roy Hill is an underrated film director, which is astonishing when you consider some of the stone cold classics he’s made: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1972), and Slap Shot (1977). His lack of recognition is due in part to his journeyman career that saw him dabble in numerous genres, from literary adaptation to the sports movie to the western. Also, each film he made is different from the other in terms of style and themes explored. Among his eclectic body of work is my favorite The World of Henry Orient (1964), a coming of age film based on the book of the same name by Nora Johnson, daughter of celebrated screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath).
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by Sam Juliano

Thanksgiving Day 2018.  Weather forecasters are predicting one of the coldest Turkey Days on record for the NYC and northern New Jersey region, with the numbers promised to dip below freezing.  My own family will be traveling up to my wife’s sister’s home in Butler, New Jersey  for the 25th consecutive year where the usual throng of 70 plus assembles in a specious home at the end of a cul de sac.  The crew at Wonders in the Dark extends to all readers a very Happy Thanksgiving and safe traveling to all destinations.  Over the years the day has meant congregating with beloved family, taking a gander at the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys and trying not to go overboard at the meal and desert tables.

This past week Jim Clark published a penetrating essay on Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 Cries and Whispers, while J.D. Lafrance posted a terrific review of Jason Bourne: Geopolitical Action Hero a day earlier.  My own review of the picture book Night Train, Night Train continued my ongoing Caldecott Medal Contender series.  Otherwise I am fighting stomach nausea, aching joints and the sweats.  It is that time of the year again.  Ugh!  Lucille and I attended a beautiful wedding at the Valley Regency in Clifton, New Jersey (right across the road from my alma mater Montclair State University) for the only child of one of my very best lifelong friends Tony Lucibello. His daughter Diana, age 38 marries a man four or five years older in a wonderful Catholic-Jewish mixed denomination ceremony.  This was our fourth wedding in the last five weeks. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

A steady drizzle and overcast sky suffused the late morning hours of Saturday, 17, August, 2013, in the town of Carnforth, part of the northwestern county of Lancashire, England.  The gloomy weather is pretty much normal for that region and that time of year, but somehow it atmospherically accentuated the twenty or so mile trek we embarked on from our home base of Kendal in the county of Cumbria.  Our destination was a seemingly sedate and rustic train depot on the outer fringes of a parish populated by barely five-thousand, and geographically distinguished by hilly terrain and its close proximity to the sea.  The Carnforth Railway Station, which has a history dating back to the mid 1800’s was used as a waylay station for soldiers during both World Wars, and served as a junction on the London, Midland and Scottish railways.  It was refurbished in 1938, and subsequently entered the movie history books after it was chosen as the primary setting for one of the most famous films ever made – David Lean’s timeless classic of repressed emotion – Brief Encounter, which was filmed during the last stage of World War II in early 1945.  The location was chosen by film executives, because it was far enough away from major cities to avert blackouts which were common during the war years.  Said Lean: “the war was still on and the railway people said, ‘there may be an air raid at any moment, and you’ll have time to put out the lights in that remote part up in the north.  We’ll know when the planes are coming.’  We were a blaze of lights from filming.’  More recently renovations were completed to the Brief Encounter refreshment room (the tea room in the film) and the “Heritage Center” that are now places of pilgrimage for the film’s fans.

My recollection of the daytime darkness and the film that made this station famous was again brought into focus the first time I laid eyes upon Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor’s exquisite  Night Train, Night Train, an atmospheric immersion of the nighttime travel experience, a tone poem which is more attuned to a symphony in music than it is to a story arc in children’s literature.  Burleigh’s concise narrative is presumably set around the mid 30’s during the Depression years as per the car models and billboards, though Minor himself spills the beans in his final note when he talks about the featured Dreyfuss locomotive which he “wonders what it might have been like to rider in the 1930s or 1940s.”  As the actual setting of David Lean’s nocturnal train station romance is on the eve of the Second World War circa late 1938, an adult reader with a vivid memory will probably be able or inclined to connect the dots.  When you add Minor’s mostly-monochrome graphite which magnificently negotiates shadows, lights flash within a celestial perspective it is easy to envision the moody work of cinematographer Robert Krasker who brought dazzling cognizance to this mode of transport in Lean’s poetic work. Of course very young children, who are the target audience won’t discover Lean and Krasker until maybe fifteen years later in their lives but they have Burleigh and Minor to lead the way in replicating the basic tenets of a train ride in all its wonder and excitement.  Book and film lovers will of course think of Chris Van Alsberg’s beloved Caldecott Medal winning The Polar Express, another book set in the blackest night depicting a train ride to the North Pole at Christmastime though children’s literature can boast a number of distinguished books on the subject including Brian Floca’s Caldecott winning Locomotive, The Little Engine That Could by Arnold Munk and Lois Lenski, Train by Elisha Cooper and the Caldecott Honor winning Freight Train by Donald Crews. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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The-Bourne-Identity-the-bourne-trilogy-8230487-1024-435

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. (more…)

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