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Archive for December, 2018

by Sam Juliano

Few might realize that about half of adults that yawn do so after seeing another engaging  in the all-too-familiar and reflexive open-mouth inhale.  “Contagious yawning” is now regarded as a universal phenomenon, though news studies have concluded this visible expression of exhaustion is actually no longer linked to variables like lethargy, energy or depleted energy levels.  Yet, yawning persists when one is tired or bored and the act more often than not precedes deep slumber.  A yawn can be insulting when it occurs at a live musical or dramatic performance  or downright rude in a more intimate classroom environment, especially when the yawner doesn’t cover his or her mouth.  Sometimes just as difficult to suppress as a burp, sneeze, cough or unconscious snore, the action makes a statement, one always always unflattering, but sometimes as an instinctive reaction to what a person sees, hears or senses, even in some substantiated instances when someone reads the word in passage or word bubble.  The picture book author Caron Levis has taken this concept to plague-like proportions in the delightfully anarchic Stop That Yawn!, a sometimes uproarious tale about how a single yawn develops into a torrent which once unleashed will similarly affect unsuspecting urban residents, in a manner recalling the spores on the planet Omicron Ceti III in the original Star Trek Season 1 episode “This Side of Paradise”, which induced elation and the poppies that brought on sleep in the field en-route to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.  Never before in literature has a yawn led to such epic proportions, but Caron and her talented artist LeUyen Pham sustain a potent measure of merriment as one after the other fails to properly negotiate the surefire way to curb a yawn, by biting one’s teeth and sealing one’s lips.  Unlike the terrifying ramifications facing those who failed to stay awake in the 1956 film classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers those in the path of the yawn torrent end up with more shut-eye than scheduled, which all things considered in a place where far too many burn the candles at both ends might be a welcome development.

The credo of Stop That Yawn! is nonetheless a mission to stop the yawn from compromising the reputation of a city that never sleeps, one where concerts, carnivals, opera house and eateries among other round-the-clock establishments operate well into the night.  A young African-American girl has had her fill of bedtime, and she attempts to enact a 24-7 much as Elmo did when he wished Christmas would fall on every day of the year, and basically the results are the same.  The metaphorical yawn presented to children as an expanding pestilence rather than an inevitable result of staying up into the wee-hours of the morning has a cumulative effect, one where exposure without exception leads to physical surrender.  Gabby Wild came around to the position that bedtime was a major bore, and a waste of time that would be so much better spent doing exciting and fulfilling things.  Heck, with roughly a third of one’s time in horizontal mode one can hypothetically agree with this spirited girl’s view of the wasted hours invested in do-nothing slumber.  She persuades her Granny to depart their somnolent environs, with the destination a place called Never Sleeping City.  Pajamas, slippers and pillows of course are persona non gratta in this land of an ongoing adrenaline rush, and en-route they work on the art of keeping one’s eyes open.  That’s the basic premise of a picture book that lovingly evokes Maurice Sendak’s Caldecott Honor winner In the Night Kitchen with its bold and colorful cartoon-styled vignettes and word bubbles.  Levis’s illustrator is the enormously gifted LeUyen Pham, whose croquille and India ink on bristol board panels are strikingly colored digitally. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself.” – Bob Arctor

Over the years, many films have been made based on the science fiction novels by Philip K. Dick – some good (Blade Runner and Minority Report), but mostly bad (Paycheck and Next). However, they all share a common trait: they only remotely resemble their source material. David Cronenberg recounted a story about how he began adapting the short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” for a Hollywood studio and when he handed in his screenplay, an executive complained that it was too faithful to the source material. They wanted something like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cronenberg wasn’t interested in doing that and left the project, which became Total Recall (1990). This explains why none of Dick’s material has been accurately translated into film until A Scanner Darkly (2006).

It was adapted by filmmaker Richard Linklater, not the first person you’d think of when it comes to science fiction but he had two things going for him: he was a fan of the book and he was willing to make it independently, keeping the budget low enough that he could have creative control over the material. He was also able to assemble a very impressive cast that consisted of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder. However, his choice to utilize rotoscoping animation (where animators basically draw over live action footage) was not embraced by everyone and ended up causing Linklater all kinds of headaches in post-production. That being said, the style of animation he employed was well suited for the film’s various drug hallucinations and in realizing the scramble suit technology.

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by Sam Juliano

Christmas is roughly two weeks away and beyond that an end to a 2018 that brought us mixed blessings on so many fronts.  I would like to once again acknowledge James Clark and J.D. Lafrance for keeping Wonders in the Dark relevant with films reviews of past and present subjects and for our loyal readers for their interest, which as ever is gauged by page views and comments.  For what was once an impulsive, somewhat irrational desire to conform to the early millennial rage to launch one’s own blogsite turned into a film community institution that is now against all odds entering its eleventh year.  Two months after I brought Wonders in the Dark into the world, Allan Fish came aboard and the rest they say is history.  Jim has been a writing force for many years and J.D. has added to the diversity.  As a 64 year old man now I always think how much longer I can hold reigns here, but unless some unforeseen circumstances force me to pull back I am seeing this home where so many friendships were born to persevere.  Hence there are no plans to pull the plug.  Over the past weeks we did lose the incomparable Ferdy-on-Films, the scholarly blog masterfully written by Marilyn Ferdinand and Roderick Heath.  Our dear friend Rod lost his father a few weeks back and we offer him our deepest condolences at the worst time in his life.  As to Marilyn and Rod, I’m sure their great reviews will be seen at other forums or blogs.

Total Domination by “Roma” in critics’ group awards!!!

First it was the New York Film Critics Circle last week and now Alfonso Cuaron’s Mexican monochrome epic “Roma” continue to roll, getting Best Picture over the weekend from the Los Angeles Critics Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Toronto Film Critics Circle, the Philadelphia Film Critics Society and the New York Online Film Critics group. the film IS a staggering masterpiece but in an especially competitive year the film’s award circuit domination is quite the feat!!! The LA group checked in today with their awards which are as follows:

Best Picture: Roma Runner-up: Burning Best Director: Debra Granik, Leave No Trace Runner-up: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Favourite Runner-up: Toni Collette, Hereditary Best Actor, Winner: Ethan Hawke, First Reformed Runner-up: Ben Foster, Leave No Trace Best Supporting Actress, Winner: Regina King,If Beale Street Could Talk Runner-up: Elizabeth Debicki, Widows Best Supporting Actor: Steven Yeun, Burning Runner-up: Hugh Grant, Paddington 2 Best Foreign-Language Film: Burning and Shoplifters (tie) Best Documentary: Shirkers Runner-up: Minding the Gap Best Animation: Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse Runner-up: Incredibles 2 Best Screenplay: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?…

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© 2018 by James Clark

 

    Our striking film today is not what it seems to be. And it signals something along those surprising lines by its title, You Were Never Really Here (2017). The elsewhere, where our leading man, Joe, chooses to be, lands him in late 19th century Sweden. He, portrayed by actor, Joaquin Phoenix. along with filmmaker extraordinaire, Lynne Ramsay, proceed to the extremities of the filmic communications of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007),  in particular, his film, Cries and Whispers (1972). Whereas we see onscreen a burly, bewhiskered, kill-for-pay, frenetic bottom-feeder, he’s galvanized by a maxim, produced by a long-ago patrician of Bergman’s invention, namely, Karin: “It’s all a tissue of lies…” Joe’s not the sort who would bat around remarks like that; but he does very deeply know what it means.

Both Joe and Karin (the latter being one of a triumvirate of sisters) have been burned by violent parenting. But it is how they cultivated that rather mundane handicap which distinguishes them as thoroughgoing thinkers, forming a bizarre kinship which can tell us a lot. We see in tenuous flash-backs Joe’s mother being assaulted by her husband by means of a hammer smashing her head and Joe being terrorized (including sexually) and frequently hiding in a closet. (We also see, in the earlier film, in that same way of flash-back, how two of the sisters, Karin and Agnes, are slighted and intimidated, by their mother, while the third [and prettiest], Maria, is spoiled rotten. Soon we will hear of a pretty young girl, Nina, basking in her mother’s affection, but losing that, perhaps dubious, gift on the latter’s death, which sends her frequently running away from home to seek a revival of the right stuff, or the rich stuff.) Fathoming the heart of You Were Never Really Here means transcending its scabrous comportment per se, for the sake of disclosing the massive rigors of lucidity and love. Despite its façade of Grand Guignol melodrama, we are expertly guided to something far more rare and important—the patrimony of Bergman, re-branded for an age of iconoclasts.

Joe’s mother, quite far into dementia, can introduce us to the nature of advanced perception. We first see her, late at night, after Joe returns from Cincinnati, where he has  murdered, by a ball peen hammer, the principals of a child prostitution ring, one of the captive’s parents being eager to recover their child for a significant payment. What catches our attention first of all is the affection between the youngish beast and the old beauty. He finds her asleep in front of the TV, and as she wakes up she smiles and tells him she wanted to stay up to see him (having no idea what his job entails). Her carefree laugh is echoed by him. She refers to the late-night screening of Hitchcock’s Psycho—“Oh, boy, it’s scary!”—and he joins the edgy fun by simulating Anthony Perkins’ slashing Janet Leigh. Over and above the robust conviviality, this moment establishes their being more contemporary than the cloying domesticity mentioned above. The hot jazz sax solo doubling down on her radio takes us to Lynch’s Lost Highway—something closer to what’s in store for Joe. He helps her into her bed and she doesn’t want what she sees to be a gem of a night to end. “Hey, Joe, stay a bit…” In reply, he twigs on to her fear of being murdered, flaring up due to Hitchcock. “Well, if you must watch scary movies…” (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Ivy at age 9: The universe is expanding.

Doctor in Brooklyn: The universe is expanding?

Alvy at age 9: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!

-Annie Hall (1977)

Though there is little evidence suggesting the expansion of the universe initiated by the Big Bang of 13.7 million years ago will one day cause a final disintegration -there are those to be sure who have hypothesized that expansion will be infinite – there are understanding some who favor the idea that an end will ultimately following a beginning.  In any event the Big Bang theory has now become the prevailing cosmological model for the observable universe, the point of conception of everything we know and imagine, and the model relies on Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  The Big Bang is an event that signifies the birth of the universe when the laws of physics could be ascertained and verified.  Difficult to perceive and for young readers a practically inaccessible advance from nothingness, Newbery Honor winner Marion Dane Bauer applies concise lyricism to to the defining phenomenon of human cognizance in a magisterial picture book titled The Stuff of Stars.  Bauer traces the evolution of man from the time where nothing existed to advent of man, presumably around 200,000 years ago, by stirring the embers of imagination with descriptive language mastery, free of overwrought ostentation.  Against all odds Bauer acutely and powerfully traces billions of years with rhetorical leitmotifs that bring definition and understanding to the most colossal and defining subject of all.

Bauer’s illustrator is the extraordinary Caldecott Honor winner Ekua Holmes, and for once the oft-used expression “a match made in heaven” possesses cosmological heft.  Bauer sets the stage for the birth of existence, with a theological association at the incubation stage devoid of time, space, and configuration, a tabula rasa stage before matter and space have taken shape or form:  In the dark, in the dark, in the deep deep dark, a speck floated, invisible as thought, weighty as God.  There was yet no time, there was no space.  No up, no down, no edge, no center.  In a double page spread that suggests Lars Von Trier’s 2011 Melancholia with its portentous blue light and the closure of immutability in a scenario where end and beginning are blurred.  Holmes gives young readers the opportunity to imagine what a distant white speck might look like hovering over an infinite black hole.  Bauer reinforces this concept of an empty vacuum when nothing we know as real and tangible has taken form.  There is no environment, no living organisms, no people, no tress.  One grounded in religion might convey this as the time before God created the Earth and the heavens.  The Bang! which Bauer denotes as the beginning of the beginning of all beginnings is envisioned by Holmes as a kaleidoscopic web, or an application by an abstract expressionist such as Jackson Pollack.   The time of the band -one trillionth of a second suggests Bauer is seen in yellowed illumination segues into the delineation that a simple cloud of gas which collides, stretches and expands by bumping and accumulation which recalls the phenomenon of the 1958 science-fiction classic The Blob, though the Big Bang ignites star formations throughout the newly-minted universe, a time Bauer tells her readers that still pre-date the formations of planets and living organisms, emphasizing by contrast the minute time window of life in the endless span of time from the implosion to the first one celled organisms millions of years ago.  Hence Bauer tells her young readers without planets there can never be water, rock formations or mammals, as well as the sensory wonderments like “a violet blooming in a shady wood,” “no crickets singing in the night” and indeed no day or night as we know it.  Holmes shows this celestial anarchy as spacious and colorfully incandescent but without the clear lines of demarcation that will later define the formation of the solar system and numerous other galaxies. (more…)

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Deep Cover

By J.D. Lafrance

While movie star-studded prestige films like Traffic (2000) tackle the war on drugs on an ambitious scale, sometimes it takes a slick B-movie like Deep Cover (1992) to get right to the heart of the issue. Directed by veteran character actor and filmmaker Bill Duke, the film attempted to capitalize on the success of edgy urban films like New Jack City (1991) and shed light on how drug addiction and drug dealing is destroying African American neighborhoods in major cities throughout the United States. Deep Cover dares to be different by showing how flawed and corrupt law enforcement is in dealing with the drug problem, following the paper trail all the way up the ladder to the upper echelons of our government, all the while delivering the requisite thrills of the police thriller. The end result is a B-movie with a brain.

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by Sam Juliano

And now December 2018 which brings with it all the year-end list fun, some prestige releases in all the arts and of course the hectic Holiday season.  Here at Wonders in the Dark it has been business as usual with Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance bringing you stupendous film essays and Yours Truly the currently running Caldecott Medal series, which this year has been running on a slower pace than previous years.  But the rest of the way I plan to pick up that pace.

New York Film Critics Circle Name “Roma” Best Picture and Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”) Best Director!!

One of the year’s great masterpieces -a film I saw last week and reported on with rapturous praise- Alfonso Cuaron’s Spanish language ‘Roma’ a monochrome epic set in Mexico nabbed the top two prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle today. Here is the groups full slate: Best Film: Roma Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón / Roma Best Screenplay: First Reformed (Paul Schrader) Best Actress: Regina Hall / Support the Girls Best Actor: Ethan Hawke / First Reformed Best Supporting Actress: Regina King / If Beale Street Could Talk Best Supporting Actor: Richard E. Grant / Can You Ever Forgive Me? Best Cinematography: Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) Best Foreign Film: Cold War Best First Film: Eighth Grade Best Non-Fiction Film: Minding the Gap (Bing Liu) Best Animated Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) Special Award: Kino Classics Box Set “Pioneers: First Women…

Lucille and I attended a marvelous local production of the opera Hansel and Gretel by Humperdinck at the west Side Theater in Jersey City.  Our nephew Eric Lampmann played the flute and piccolo in the orchestra in this creative production.  We all headed up to Sussex County not too very far from John Grant Country to pick up our freshly cut Christmas tree on Saturday morning.  Lucille, Sammy and I got to briefly chat with children’s literature luminaries Jacqueline Woodson and Jarrett Krosoczka on Wednesday evening at the spacious Brooklyn Public Library a hop, skip and a jump from Barclay’s Center where both famous writer-artists conducted an on-stage dialogue after Krosoczka read selections from his acclaimed “Hey, Kiddo” along with a frank discussion of his family problems growing up. Woodson asked him scene-specific questions about the making of the book and an overhead projector was employed for enlarged reproductions of his comic-style illustrations. This was one of the most fascinating and dynamic of all book presentations. (more…)

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