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Archive for September, 2019

Screen capture from 1997’s horror film “Wishmaster” reviewed this week by Jamie Uhler as part of continuing Horror Fest 2019.

by Sam Juliano

     The Halloween season has officially launched as we are a day away from the beginning of October, but summer weather is simply not letting up in the metropolitan area, with at least two days in the coming week promising 90 degrees.  This past week J.D. Lafrance published a splendid review on Allison Ander’s Grace of My Heart and this coming week James Clark will be posting his own latest comprehensive essay.  I would like to thank readers for responding enthusiastically to the first review in my annual Caldecott Medal Contender series (Manhattan by Jennifer Thermes).  The page views and comments were most impressive.

Non-Fiction Picture Book Bonanza at Books of Wonder in Manhattan

A fascinating panel presentation was staged at Books of Wonder yesterday afternoon. Lucille, Sammy IV, Jeremy and I attended and again got to chat with some of the industry’s most celebrated luminaries, friends who spoke about their new highly praised works. Barry Wittenstein and multiple Caldecott winner Jerry Pinkney (A Place to Land); Bryan Collier (Thurgood); John Parra (Little Libraries, Big Heroes); Gary Golio (Smile).

Jamie Uhler’s fabulous Horror Fest series continues this week with a brilliant capsule review on 1997’s Wishmaster, which Uhler likens to glorious trash:

Wishmaster (R. Kurtzman… 1997)
A camp classic that had recently reentered my sights by a truly hilarious We Hate Movie podcast on it, that as I listened, slowly prompted me to the realization that I’d never fully seen it. It’s a rather glorious piece of hilarious trash, delivered as a loving homage of sorts to the more famous (and better) films of its creators—producer Wes Craven offers the dream state horror riffing of Nightmare on Elm Street complete with Robert Englund in a juicy role, while screenwriter Peter Atkins adds illusions to his work in the Hellraiser franchise. This is a nice way of saying the Djinn/titular Wishmaster is something of Freddy Kruger meets Pinhead as others have noted for decades, but where the film borrows, it also finds its greatest entertainment. The Hellraiser and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises are gory, often hilarious enterprises and here, Wishmaster seems to exist to lurch from inventive gore kill to inventive gore kill. In other words, the stuff that Horror hounds scour bins in search of. 
It’s a tale originating in ancient Persia, where our film opens. It’s mass chaos, with people being massacred and disemboweled in spectacular practical effect manner from special effects wizard Howard Berger (with the help of a crew of dozens from the KNB EFX Group). The best one—a skeleton rips itself from its fleshy home and once out, murders another—leads us into the Kings chambers where we learn the Djinn has tricked the leader into a Monkey’s Paw like premise where wishes lead to death, destruction and hell on earth. From here we get additional background via a series of title cards read from—here’s another iconic Horror homage, Angus Scrimm, popular Tall Man from the Phantasm series providing voice-over—takes us to modern day America (additional scenes later add even more backstory legend, which while nearly tiring are quick enough and no doubt what sustains the franchise across its several sequels). A jewel, now entrapping the Djinn, has traveled with a sculpture for purchase by wealthy art buyer Raymond Beaumont (played with clear glee by Robert Englund). The jewel is freed when a drunken mishap drops the sculpture during shipment on the docks setting in motion the eventual freeing of the Wishmaster in what appears to be Southern California. Here he begins taking souls by quickly tricking unsuspecting victims into making (often trite and purely hypothetical) wishes that nearly instantly lead to their deaths and giving himself additional power. Soon he’s taken human form (Andrew Divoff) as an arrogant playboy deadset to get Alexandra’s (Tammy Lauren) soul as legend dictates since she’d first glimpsed him within the jewel. To me it’s this game of cat-and-mouse that provides the movie’s most hilarious, non-gore laughs where the Djinn is consistently portrayed as a suave lothario when our very eyes plainly see him as a poor man’s Ray Liotta, complete with heavy pockmarked face. Eventually Alexandra is able to utilize her third wish to again enslave the Djinn into his jewel prison, but not before he creates a climax that thoroughly trashes Beaumont’s posh place and sees dozens murdered in ever escalatingly original ways. This sequence, it should be obvious by now, needed rewinding several times, and had the film barely heard over all four watching laughing so loudly. 
I had the pleasure of watching this piece of highly entertaining trash like I used to do these things in the old days. With two old friends joining me on my last night in town after spending the week with my father for our second annual British Car week(end), an event we decided to pursue shortly after my mother passed and my Dad was forlorn at the thought of not using a vintage 1966 MGB for the chief purpose of its purchaselong retirement jaunts with his lifelong spouse. We howled multiple times in the exact environment I cite these types of films with: beer and pizza flicks. High trash recommend.   –Jamie Uhler

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By J.D. Lafrance

Grace of My Heart (1996) is Allison Anders’ unabashed love letter to three decades of popular music, from the doo-wop era of the late 1950’s, to the rise of girl groups in the 1960’s to the psychedelic era of the 1970’s, all seen through the eyes of a female songwriter cast in the mould of Carole King, among others. Anders’ passion project finally gave a substantial role to actress Illeana Douglas who, finally freed from the shackles of numerous supporting character roles over the years, delivers a career-defining performance. Despite the pedigree of having Martin Scorsese as executive producer and the likes of John Turturro and Matt Dillon in supporting roles, Grace of My Heart was not a commercial hit, and was quickly eclipsed by another nostalgic look at popular music from the ‘60s that came out the same year – Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do! (1996), which, incidentally, wasn’t a huge hit either but had much more advertising muscle behind it. For all of its flaws, which include a weak third act, Grace of My Heart is a fascinating look at a time when the craft of writing a good song mattered. It is a film that deserves to be rediscovered.

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by Sam Juliano

The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the river-streets,
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week,
The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the brown-faced sailors…         – Mannahatta, Walt Whitman (1860)

The overall mood and flow of Whitman’s free-verse Mannahatta like its subject, the main platform of the “city that never sleeps” only comes to a complete stop at the poem’s final coda.  Though the skyscraper phenomenon didn’t fully mature until the 1890’s, the poet hailed the work in progress of upward expansion and laudatory congestion in glowing terms:  Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies.  In what may appear to be an overload of ebullience for a location rife with urban problems and challenges Whitman extols the city’s seasonal trimmings, mechanics and million-strong population, the latter possessing “manners free and strong”, with “open voices” and “hospitality.”  He adds “the most courageous and friendly young men” reside in a “city of hurried and sparkling waters!” ending his unconditional approbation with dogged possessiveness: “my city.”

Whitman’s celebratory verse, steaming with the same level of exultation as the Sceptered Isle speech from Richard II, where England was referred to “that other Eden, “this blessed plot” and “this Demi Paradise” is given an ultimate contemporary transcription in a  meticulously layered picture book by Jennifer Thermes titled Manhattan.  Employing vibrant and full color art to define and complement the historical, geographical and architectural advent of the most famous island in human history, and the hotbed of culture, finances and condensed population Thermes challenges early readers to absorb the evolution of an astonishingly comprehensive panorama of a paddle-shaped sliver of land, appropriately nicknamed “the Big Apple”, the centerpiece of the five Borough metropolitan area known as New York City, which includes Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island.  Thermes, the author-illustrator of the most distinguished Charles Darwin’s Around-the-World Adventure has advanced her game, defying the odds against effectively encapsulating such an epic subject with an enthralling canvas that surely would have impressed the avid arts maven and ultimate New York City aficionado Ed Koch, whose spiritual ancestor is shown standing at the tip of the island near Wall Street proclaiming “It’s the greatest city in the world.” (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

We are approaching the Halloween season and with it here at Wonders in the Dark, our annual Horror Fest capsule reviews on some classic and contemporary works in the genre, courtesy of poll position horror expert Jamie Uhler, which I am thrilled to post here on the MMD.  This past week we featured two extraordinary reviews by our distinguished writing staff, one by James Clark on Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (as the latest entry in his continuing series on the director) and the other by J.D. Lafrance on the classic Jules Verne adaptation from 1954, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I myself am preparing to post the first review in my annual Caldecott Medal Contender series, perhaps as early as later this evening.  In any event Jamie reviewed three films, two of which he liked/loved to varying degrees and one a “howler” (1980’s Alligator) which he describes as “an enjoyable piece of trash”:

Hereditary (A. Aster… 2018)
Midsommar (A. Aster… 2019)
Aster’s first two films reveal a burgeoning master of modern horror, a sensibility finally tuned to the modern psychosis of crippling terror married with a visual sense straight from titans of European Horror cinema. His first and best film, Hereditary, is an intricately layered piece of family dynamics told via miniature diorama symbolism, that once stripped away, revealed a meditation on the immense power of grief. Similarly, Midsommar cloaks itself in the minutia exploration of the day to day workings of a Swedish cult, where we know that terror will befall all those that aren’t members if we correctly identify the tropes. It only misses being Hereditary’s masterpiece equal by echoing a few films it clearly loves a little too closely; the Wicker Man especially, with a dash of the Devil Rides Out for good measure. At the heart of both films is a terrific lead female performance; Hereditary sees the grieving Annie (Toni Collette), invite terror into her world and onto her family, just as we’re left partially wondering how much is it inside her troubled mind that she replicates in her masterful miniature sculptures. Midsommer has the ailing Dani (Florence Pugh in a breakout performance), who slowly realizes in her grief that boyfriend Jack has never been the soulmate she sought. 
Midsommar was initially rumored to be something of a sequel to Hereditary, and outside both films attention to cults, we’d need a third film to better connect the two films divergent stories. Aster hasn’t revealed where he’s going next, but given he’s a confessed Horror obsessive, we assume it’ll be another buzz Horror film, I can’t wait. 

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© 2019 by James Clark

       I kicked off the Bergman trilogy comprising the films, Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1969) and The Passion of Anna (1969), by way of Shame. But one could start anywhere here, inasmuch as all three of them represent a steep ascent toward—not the famous “silence of God”—but the long-hidden finality of death as tempering the farce of advantage. There was the attraction, in Shame, for its fulsome violence and its unspoken (forgotten) heresy, buried by a world-history crazily intent upon becoming iconic, even if tiny.

We’ll pick up from there, by another very humbled figure, namely, Alma, the wife of a rather well-known and admired painter, Johan Borg, in the film, Hour of the Wolf. Unlike the forgetting of that unfamiliar reflection, in Shame, Alma has incorporated a degree of disinterestedness being the gem of the aforementioned film. But, like Eva-the-forgetful, Alma, remarkably warm though she could be, there was about her a striking inefficiency, a decorative tip of an iceberg—while the full accomplishment remained a huge oblivion. Whereas the opening of Shame adopted an almost sit-com miasma, here instead, what we  experience, and yet being far from the depths of creative magic and profound joy, is a punishing, but soft, third-degree. “Listen, we’re not quite finished yet… No? Alright…”

“Alright” takes off with Alma’s telling the camera and us, in flashback, of the shocking death of Johan; and her inability to keep him in one piece. She begins by emerging from her thatch-roofed, wood-framed cottage, with head bowed and tired eyes. Having already made to the world the details of her telling, this would be an investigatory journalist’s follow-up, in hopes that the disaster could provide more cogency. “I’ve given you the diary. And you wonder why I choose to stay here? We’ve lived in this house almost seven years. Come winter, I can come to the mainland, work at the store as I have done when money was short. The baby is due in a month. The doctor examined me in May, before the very last time we came out here. We’d planned to stay here until August. We were going to be completely alone… He was afraid… He liked that I was quiet…” Then, on the heels of that jumble of tenses, she abruptly delineates (in flash-back), how they had commissioned a small power boat and driven to their island hideaway. The arrival is shown to be touched by murky light not without a harsh beauty. This positive moment links to the boat of death, in Shame. Ebb and flow of engaging challenge. “We found a wheelbarrow in a shed on the beach. When we got here, we were happy to see the apple tree in bloom. Then we discovered footprints under the kitchen window in the flower bed, but forgot it.” (Long pause, in which the investigator could begin to discern that the quiet ones are also stupid ones.) “Yes, we were happy… Johan was uneasy.” (What sort of logic do they subscribe to? Probably a logic not far from that of Eva and Jan, in Shame.) “He always grew anxious when his work did not go well, and it had not gone well for some time now.” (The same precious and unscrupulous aesthetic, from the violinists’, in Shame?) “And he became sleepless. He was frightened, as if he was afraid of the dark. It had gotten worse in the last few years.” The decisive prow of the thrust of Johan and Alma’s boat brings to the story a baseline of decisiveness which awaits them, and all of us. Johan launches the returning driver with clear-enough decisiveness. He gathers his baggage—including, many frames waiting for successful performances—and grimly moves a pushcart to the cottage over very difficult terrain. In the arrival with its delight in the apple tree, she rushes to embrace Johan wholeheartedly; and receives a half-hearted buss and then a brush-off as he heads indoors distractedly and with a sour visage. Next day, he proposes drawing her; and the precious, nineteen-century proceedings seem to lack the promise of shoring up a tired routine. The white sheets blowing wildly on the line near the exercise to shake things up loom as an embarrassment and a warning. Was the second investigation alert to such matters? (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has captivated and intrigued filmmakers for decades, from George Melies’ silent short film in 1907 to the 1997 made-for-television movie starring Ben Cross. The most well-known cinematic adaptation is the 1954 Walt Disney action/adventure classic starring James Mason and Kirk Douglas. I distinctly remember watching this version as a child at a friend’s house and being absolutely terrified by the giant squid battle that occurs at the film’s exciting climax. The film has fascinated me ever since.

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Melanie and Jillian at Renaissance Faire

by Sam Juliano

It’s that time of the year again, the ‘horrific’ lead-up to Halloween and our compatriot Jamie Uhler’s premium investigation into classic and contemporary horror in the cinema.  This year his debut selection is J. Irvin’s supernatural Ghost Story from 1981.  His brilliant capsule follows:

Ghost Story (J. Irvin… 1981) ghost/supernatural

Prompting this selected was an interview I saw with Peter Straub, the writer of the 1979 breakthrough book to which the film is based. In a roundtable discussion on conjuring frights on the page, several prominent scary scribes where on hand (including most famously Stephen King), but when Straub’s first answer explored the basic idea of just telling scary stories within a group, he and I had an idea to get this season’s watching underway.
His story (and thus film) opens like Octave Mirbeau’s masterfully righteous novel The Torture Garden, with several old, clearly successful men leisurely sitting around a fire lit den, brandies in hand, attempting to out-spook the other. It’s a clear anthology-like linking device, you could jump into many different stories this way, while always having a quick return out, but again, like Torture Garden, Irvin and Straub settle in for the long haul. We’re not entirely prompted to via a tale—that’s where we break from Mirbeau— and instead see our old friend’s conclude their night, clearly understanding it’s a ritual that has held together these incredibly long friendships, a ritual they’ve donned as ‘the Chowder Club’. The spooky entry makes a clear point, appearing at the height of the slasher era, here is an old fashioned chiller by all appearances, and if it wasn’t already crystal, the parade of former Hollywood heavies on hand only reinforces the idea; around the fire is none other than Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Edward), Fred Astaire (Ricky), John Houseman (Sears) and Melvyn Douglas (John) (who is partially reunited with Hud costar Patrica Neal [Stella], who plays Ricky’s wife), many appearing in their final films. A cut jumps us to New York City the next morning, where we see man (whom we in time learn is Edward’s son) murdered when his lover’s body suddenly turns to a corpse and scares him right through a large window where he falls dozens of stories to his death. The cut makes it seem like a vignette in a (previously mentioned) Horror Anthology, as we’re largely left piecing together character connections in subsequent scenes after first not understanding the sudden shift. When Edward’s other son returns home (both sons played by Body Double’s Craig Wasson) additional murders happen, the corpse girl either bringing about suicides or picking off Chowder Club members one by one, before the film’s second half pieces together two flashback ‘scary stories’ told by members of the group connecting the series of events going back some half a century. This interesting story-telling device, a near quasi-Anthology film that isn’t, is the most thought-provoking idea in the film, and perhaps handled slightly better, could make for masterpiece level stuff. As it is, it’s slightly stiff and short on scares, wasting what could have been thrilling stuff. I Know What You Did Last Summer tread similar water and was similarly a book and a film, and while that doesn’t have a genius like Jack Cardiff behind the camera, produces some actual scares, and is more than willing to acknowledge that killing off a cast one-by-one is Ten Little Indians slasher stuff, a trope Ghost Story appears to look down its nose at. Surprisingly it shouldn’t, as I Know What You Did Last Summer—while pure teenage trash for the most part—is able to better maneuver the ethical quandary where we’re supposed to hope characters live, but who we know actually probably deserve bloody retribution from a person whose life they ended, accidental or not, thus prompted the creation of a ghost in the first place. Oh well, not a terrible way to start. (more…)

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