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Archive for December, 2019

 © 2019 by James Clark

The films of Ingmar Bergman are all of a piece. They endeavor, from many angles, to make sense of the powers that be. This concern is particularly pressing in regard to the work today, namely, The Serpent’s Egg (1977). On the basis of many vicissitudes of Bergman’s history at that production, a whole industry arose, of delighting in what seemed to have been a weakening of confidence—on the very flimsy basis of punitively catching Bergman straying from his vigorous roots. Were the wags to have troubled themselves to comprehend those roots (well disclosed), they would have dropped that childish game and got down to business.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, we must turn to recognize our guide’s commitment to taking on a field of very complex physicality. At the outset of his career—in the film, Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), with the figure of Alma and her brief but impressive ecstatic balance; and in the film, The Seventh Seal (1957), with Jof and Marie, and their child hopefully one day excelling in acrobatics and juggling—we have an invitation to a party of unending carnal delivery.

If you think that tax problems; turning away from a homeland to resettle in Germany; and linking with a Hollywood bagman (Dino De Laurentiis [in fact, at that time, only recently based in the USA]; and with involvement in La Strada, Nights of Cabira, and Blue Velvet] could destabilize the resolve of Bergman’s interests, you don’t know what this priority entails. Moreover, there was cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, still in place and game for risking new visuals with unusually big bucks.) (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

In a prolific and diverse career, some of Sidney Lumet’s best films dealt with police corruption. It was a theme that the filmmaker was drawn to as far back as the 1970s with Serpico (1973) and would revisit regularly in the 1980s with Prince of the City (1981) and the 1990s with Q & A (1990). It was towards the end of the latter decade that he made Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), an adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel Tainted Evidence about a newly elected district attorney’s attempt to battle corruption within the New York Police Department. The film wasn’t given a particularly wide release and performed modestly at the box office with mixed reviews. Perhaps it was felt that Lumet’s film was nothing more than an expensive, feature-length episode of Law and Order, which is unfortunately because it delves into the personal and professional dilemmas of its characters in a much deeper way than that television show.

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by Sam Juliano

He’s off and flyin’ as he guns the car around the track
He’s jammin’ down the pedal like he’s never comin’ back
Adventure’s waitin’ just ahead.
Go Speed Racer
Go Speed Racer
Go Speed Racer, Go!        -Nobuyoshi Koshibe, Peter Fernandez, Speed Racer, 1967

Barbara McClintock has been in the Caldecott hunt a number of times over the years.  Her sublime collaboration with Jim Aylesworth, My Grandfather’s Coat, was one of the prime contenders for the 2015 medal, and both the resplendent Emma and Julia Love Ballet and her 2018 Nothing Stopped Sophie written by Cheryl Bardoe were spoken of regularly in the Caldecott forums.  Her distinguished career has brought her fame worldwide, with marked veneration in Japan, where her books have been regularly translated, and her Adele & Simon series and Mary and the Mouse books have held the stage in elementary classrooms for years.  A persuasive argument could well be tendered that her newest children’s lit treasure Vroom! is her sturdiest bid for the shiny gold sticker yet, what with McClintock fans more excited than they have ever been for the Connecticut-based author-illustrator.  The inspiration for her new work is two-fold.  The artist confides she spent much time in her childhood playing with a silver toy car like the one that Annie drives in the book, and in recent adulthood she seemingly firmed up resolve after acquisition of her spiffy new Audi.

Though Vroom’s showcase front cover is gangbusters in conveying the theme, McClintock immediately signals the book’s mise en scene with florescent green end papers which inform young readers that not only will there be no stopping or delaying but not even a cautionary color segue in a narrative committed to unmitigated acceleration.  After a title page envisions a car racing full speed ahead, the book’s protagonist Annie happily sets a helmet over her long red-brown hair.  The author makes it clear that the power of the imagination is at work and much like one of kid lit’s most iconic characters, Max in Maurice Sendak’s Caldecott Medal winning Where the Wild Things Are, this young girl is wearing pajamas, a obvious clue for young readers anyway that we are about to enter fantasy land for whatever natural continuance one would expect from a racing car obsessive.  After two other minimalist vignettes the automotive-attuned child puts on her gloves and hops into her racing car and takes off plane-style through the window of a second-story bedroom in her suburban home.  Though a family pet witnesses the air-borne take-off the inhabitants in the home are none too wiser of course the singular hobby-prone youngster has acted on her wishes. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The cataract surgery on my right eye is set for this coming Friday (December 13) at a Fair Lawn, New Jersey eye center.  Aside from that frightening date I will be attending that appointment with confidence based on the routine nature of this procedure.  I’m 65 now and this the medium age when cataracts invade our vision.

J.D. Lafrance published a splendid review on the 1989 Canadian film Roadkill by Bruce McDonald this past Tuesday.  Jim Clark’s new essay will be posting soon.

Lucille, Sammy and Jeremy and I saw two films in theaters this past week:

Trey Edward Shults’ docudrama “Krishna” was a stunning achievement, but with “Waves” the young director has expanded his talents more dramatically. Armed with an electrifying performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr. and two other masterful turns by Taylor Russell and Sterling K. Brown, Shults is in full commend of an emotionally searing screenplay about unspeakable tragedy, familial disconnect and the intricacies of the healing process from within and with the support of those who work to break through a barrier of the deepest grief. The hybrid experimental, R & B score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is one of the most stunning and perfect attuned to the film’s mood and themes of any in years and the visceral presentation is sure to move even the hardest of hearts. The film’s structure is sometimes disorienting and it sometimes appears you are looking at connecting short films but in retrospect this brilliant devise connecting the dots in numerous ways is a directorial masterstroke. A 5/5 rating and without any doubt one of the 2 or 3 very best films of the year.

Seen at the Claridge in Montclair, “The Two Popes” directed by the gifted Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, features two extraordinary performances by Anthony Hopkins (as Pope Benedict) and Jonathan Pryce (as Pope Francis) in a drama that focuses on their friendship and meetings before the latter was chose as the new pontiff after the former resigned unexpectedly. Monochrome flashbacks of Jorge Bergolio (Francis’) turbulent years as an Argentinian cardinal amidst political unrest, kidnap and murder are effectively woven into the meeting segments and the philosophical differences between the German conservative and progressive South American make for engrossing conversations, and Meirelles makes excellent use of lush cinematography as well as news footage and re-enactments of the monumental elections and coronations of both men in front wall to wall people in Vatican City. The film captures pomp and circumstance, intimate reflection and historical events that shaped this most unlikely shift in church policies. It seems fitting that the film was directed by a devout Catholic. An easy 4.5 of 5.0 and a sure end-of-year “Best of” placement. (more…)

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by J.D. Lafrance

Growing up in Canada I never fully appreciated Canadian cinema. Oh sure, I liked the films of David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Strange Brew (1983). They were able to break out of the ghetto that is Canadian cinema and actually make an impact in the United States and the rest of the world. It took being in another country to finally appreciate what I took for granted so many years ago. Whenever I got homesick I put on a film like Roadkill (1989), which is fiercely proud of its Canadian culture, and it reminded me of home. Roadkill is the first part of a loosely connected rock ‘n’ roll/road movie trilogy by Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald. The film was something of a breath of fresh air when it debuted as Canadian cinema had, up until then, been traditionally known as notoriously boring or, worse, derivative of its American counterpart. McDonald managed to fuse the low budget aesthetics of the emerging U.S. indie film movement with a distinctively Canadian take on the road movie genre.

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by Sam Juliano

I would not be just a muffin’,
My head all full of stuffin’,
My heart all full of pain           -E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The inveterate bird-scarer known as the scarecrow has been a boon to farmers around the world dating back over 2,500 years to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece.  In feudal Japan they were front line protection for the rice fields, affording security for both newly-planted seeds and the maturing crop.  Inevitably over the years the scarecrow has been the prime protagonist in horror films, where its frightful visage has induced writers to re-imagine this rural symbol as a purveyor of supernatural terror.  Yes children today and those from past generations have a far more benign perception, one based exclusively on the beloved character played by Ray Bolger in the 1939 American film classic The Wizard of Oz.  Based on the first in a children’s series by L. Frank Baum the scarecrow is a good-hearted and intelligent character who wishes he had a brain in a plot where his quick-thinking is vital to the success of the trip to the city where the titular character rules over. In Baum’s book, the famed film version and practically all personifications the scarecrow is initially perceived as one of the loneliest of guardians.  Like Trent in the original Outer Limits’ most celebrated episode “Demon with a Glass Hand” where the robotic creation of mankind must stand watch over the earth’s population who are stored on a glass hand as electrical impulses, he is seemingly doomed to seclusion.  In the poetic new picture book masterwork The Scarecrow by Beth Ferry this all-weather mannequin constructed with straw and work clothes is virtually programmed with one purpose, unencumbered by dual-tasking and unchallenged by anyone or anything looking to complicate his sole mode of existence. (more…)

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Screen cap from fabulously stylish murder-mystery “Knives Out”

by Sam Juliano

I trust that everyone stateside had a fabulous Thanksgiving Day as we did in a grand gathering in Butler, New Jersey on Thursday.  Now we move fast steam ahead to the “Happy Holidays” time of the year and all the frantic preparation with a keen eye for what Mother Nature may throw our way.

Lucille, Sammy, Jeremy and I saw four films in theaters over the past two weeks, and aside from the mediocre, though reasonably engaging “Frozen 2” it was a solid batch methinks. Not a single five star movie, but three receive the excellent 4.5 rating, one received the very good 4.0 and one a fine 3.5. “Knives Out” is a stylish murder mystery with mostly terrific performances and red herrings aplenty that is one of the best in its genre in quite a while; “Queen and Slim” is a powerful drama of prejudice, police brutality and betrayal; “Dark Waters” directed by Todd Haynes is for the most part a searing legal drama about the Dupont chemical fiasco that caused the death of numerous people and contaminated the environment, and it features Mark Ruffalo and an impressive cast; “Ford vs. Ferrari” is rather a lightweight affair, but the leads are captivating and film is an undeniably entertaining sports-themed race car movie; “Frozen 2” is a far cry from its beloved predecessor, but still captures some of the general appeal even with a weaker plot.

We visited theaters in northern New Jersey and Manhattan to access this impressive batch:

Knives Out **** 1/2   (Wednesday, Secaucus multiplex)
Queen and Slim **** 1/2  (Friday, Teaneck multiplex)
Dark Waters ****   (Saturday, Cineopolis)
Frozen 2 ****  (Saturday afternoon, Secaucus multiplex)

Jamie Uhler offers up two more superlative entries in his gloriously ongoing 2019 Horror Fest series of capsule reviews: (more…)

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