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Archive for September, 2020

 © 2020 by James Clark

      At the mid-point of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s career (by then widely recognized to be superlative), he paused in his formidable march of theatrical dramas to do something else. First we’ll pin-point the change. Then we’ll try to understand what it means.

In the midst of his trilogy of assault and carnage, Bergman shot off (in nine days) his rendition of playwright, Eugene Ionesco’s classic of Theatre of the Absurd, namely, Rhinoceros (1960). Bergman named his film, The Rite (1969), whereby hitherto mainstream rationalists disappear in favor of crashing into the inscrutable. There a micro-second of the uncanny becomes haunting, more remarkable, to all the repositories of civilization as it has come to pass. A second form of this breakaway, namely, The Touch (1971), sets up a dead leady (and her flashbacks, and perhaps her granddaughter) as the wisest soul around. Having the right touch, eclipsing a long and lacking romance between two so-called “rebels,” and eclipsing world history itself.

Our film today, Face to Face (1976), could very well comprise an addition to that strange duet noted above, perhaps because, in spite of their audacity, more audacity has to be shown. Here the lion’s share of the film is a protagonist’s dream. That her cogitations go nowhere decisive reverts to the “lover’s” in The Touch and the judge in The Rite. But the protagonist’s dream has become so lengthy because she has a particularly intense undertaking to challenge the rule of pedantry. And in that undertaking, she has come, face to face, not with mere dialogue and dramatic action but with philosophy, wherein the whole universe  is the show.

There is a plethora of familiar features attending to the outset of Face to Face. We can note them; but the clutter of this overture implies something more. Jenny, our protagonist, has a wedding ring exactly like the dead lady in The Touch. Plunges of a sea, maintain for the credits, a cue to dynamics you should not take lightly. A stark asylum anticipates, In the Presence of a Clown (1997).  Our central character has a home with a stain-glass window, which recalls the shocks of The Passion of Anna (1969). The motif is beige; her wardrobe is even more fixed in beige, as with Marianne, the bourgeois disappointment, in Scenes from a Marriage. Jenny phones to her grandmother, on the subject of a radical renovation: “It’s completely empty.” (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

As we inch closer to October the 2020 Presidential Election is in full swing, and as a fervent supporter of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party I have reason to be optimistic.  Polls and movement are showing great promise for the Presidency and control of the U.S. Senate.  None of us of course are happy about the Supreme Court situation, but winning the executive and legislative branches will easily overcome that unfortunate situation.  Whether you are voting by mail or at the polls in your state, vote BIDEN HARRIS !!

J. D. Lafrance wrote an excellent review on David Fincher’s Seven this past week at Wonders in the Dark.  Next week I will post the remainder of my FB Night Gallery reviews, but we have Jamie Uhler’s masterful additions below of his banner Holloween HorrorFest 2020:

Spontaneous Combustion (T. Hooper… 1990) 
The Haunted Palace (R. Corman… 1963)
Last night I loaded up the flash drive for a night alone with the teevee with two more obscure works from a pair of American Horror masters. The first, an outlandish vehicle for Tobe Hopper’s continued descent into the ridiculous (he broke out with Texas Chainsaw Massacre like a bullet from a gun, but nonetheless made film after film thoroughly dulling that initial masterpieces’ blast) dubbed Spontaneous Combustion. Sure, it was quite ridiculous, but, it was also really interesting in parts and highly original in others, the sort of low rent trash that bad filmmakers just can’t muster. No, only a failed (maybe) master could do something like this, the tale of the world’s first (literal) nuclear family who, once ‘safe’ birth an offspring that decades later finds himself the continued scientific experiment that had killed his very parents in the first place (shortly after his birth, in, you guessed it, ‘spontaneous combustion’). He (the great, great Brad Dourif, one of America’s low art treasures for 5 decades or so) soon discovers the sinister plot and the pyrotechnics bloom. When all is said and done it’s a wonderful romp, a chuckle inducing quasi-super hero origin story for the modern age*. The second, Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace, an eery, atmospheric tale dubbed (in the trailer and all promotional materials) as another in his masterful run of eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations is, nevertheless, an H.P. Lovecraft film (literally perhaps the first one for film—certainly the first good to great one) in a similar vein. It’s cheap, but given his usual lush period color cinematography for all his genre works and evocative atmospherics and high-pitched (often) Vincent Price lead performances, works tremendously. Here, Price is two characters at once, a demonic worshipper of the dark arts in 1700’s New England and a peaceful offspring 110 years later returning to claim the family real estate castle (because, you know, the 1700’s heathen is torched at the stake). Since the town had killed his great, great grandfather—a fact he had no prior knowledge of—that once he inhabits the huge palace they suspect something afoot when he begins to fall under the swirling satanic forces. When coupled with the number of evil-doers that have stayed along waiting for offspring to return in the castle, it spells disaster for all involved…

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David Fincher’s Seven

By J.D. Lafrance

Living in any major metropolitan city in North America can be a dangerous experience. Ask anyone who lives in places like New York City, Philadelphia or Los Angeles. There is a certain amount of fear and paranoia that exists in these densely populated, often congested areas. When you have that many different types of people living in one place problems are bound to arise. In the past, these problems have always seemed containable, maybe even solvable, but now there is a certain sense of pessimism or apathy that pervades the public consciousness. Where once there was hope, now there is only despair, or worse yet, disinterest. Seven (1995) is a film that taps into these feelings with startling accuracy and clarity. It is a disturbing descent into a dark, urban hell that is at once powerful and unpleasant. Call it an urban horror film.

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by Sam Juliano

America lost an irreplaceable cultural icon this past week and the timing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing at age 87 from cancer after a long illness spells trouble ahead for us Democrats and Biden supporters who are witnessing a Republican power play to fill her seat.  I admired her deeply and when I heard she passed I was like so many others, in tears.  I fondly recall reviewing the picture book on her in my Caldecott series back in 2017.

This past week Jim Clark reviewed The Touch in his masterful winding-down Ingmar Bergman series here at Wonders in the Dark.  Jamie Uhler’s epic Halloween Horror Fest 2020 continues with some seriously fascinating entries (below).  I am holding back my Night Gallery additions until next week.  Best wishes to all.  Stay safe!

Color Out of Space (R. Stanley… 2019) 

The Curse (D. Keith… 1987)

The Midnight Meat Train (R. Kitamura… 2008)

Horror, as a celluloid enterprise, grew almost wholly out of its literary origins; the greatest and most influential films in the genre for the first several decades had all previously found birth via the printed word. Shelley, Stoker and Poe unmistakably formulated much of what we see when we think of Horror, even as the genre grew out from their tales into wholly new and foreign ones. It’s a somewhat remarkable point to consider, given that only Bram Stoker even saw a day in the 20th century (12 years to be precise), i.e. the modern age that saw the birth of projected, flickering images. But nevertheless I think we take it for granted that where Horror has come from is a medium that seeks to burrow and twist language, hoping a reader can conjure the creativity of their mind to imagine ghastly ghouls, creaky floorboards, spider-web filled castles or unimaginable bloodshed (in a photographic medium like film this becomes even more ironic). H.P. Lovecraft would then be somewhat unique, he the great link from the past masters into the Horror of the cinematic age, penning most of his classic works after World War I had completed its untold misery. Like Poe, he was also a writer in the age of periodicals, so most of his Horror was birthed in short stories published in magazines or newspapers that the everyman could afford and collect, imbuing his (still sophisticated) work with more Pulpy leaning elements of fantasy and demons, all mixed together with new advances in the natural sciences to create quite the scary cocktail.

The work that he regularly listed as his favorite, ‘The Colour Out of Space’, is perfectly illustrative of his unique brilliance. A 1927 story about a mysterious meteorite that lands on the Gardner farm near their well that they use as their water source. The meteorite is unexplainable, alluding scientific analysis as it slowly recedes into the soil over a number of days. In the coming months, everything that has been near the absorbed soil, or drank from the well (this is much of their crops, all of their animals and every member of the family) changes; the plants and vegetation grow large, often in a wild array of kaleidoscopic colors, but is nevertheless sickly inedible. The animals—and this includes the humans—slowly turn into brittle grey forms and wither away to painfully horrific deaths (similarly after their colorful plumage, the plants recede, turn grey and brittle, and break off into ash). The auteurist trick is Lovecraft’s after the fact first-person perspective of a surveyor that comes to the Arkham area years later, only able to locate one person willing to recount the ghastly ordeal that had taken place there. As Horror, it’s tremendous; it’s all exposition and recounting, nothing happening in real time, thus, theoretically, nothing happening to keep the reader on the edge of his seat. Still, it manages to be a gripping read by exacting a strangeness and often dense maze of poetic, ever-twisting prose. As was Lovecraft’s trademark by this point: it reads calmly, like the dispassionate reading of a will, or police report to a grisly murder. For cinema to tackle such a story, changes would have to be made, minor plot points wholly embellished or invented from thin air to concoct the action so it appears in the present. But how do you explain a story working so hard to be mysterious? 

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by Sam Juliano
     As we are halfway through September we are inching closer to Halloween and Election Day as if the past few months haven’t been constantly reminding us of the latter.  This past week Jim Clark published another banner essay in his long-running Ingmar Bergman series on The Touch and J.D. Lafrance a stupendous review of Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet.  We are still and will be for quite some time experiencing the fear and uncertainty of COVID-19 which stateside still remains the major story every minute of the day.  Wishing all our friends and readers continued safety.  As part of Jamie Uhler’s HalloweenFest 2020 I offer up his capsules from a few weeks ago in his introduction, which were not posted before the actual longer reviews.  I have followed his extraordinary report with my latest Night Gallery reviews in my winding-down FB countdown:
Jamie:   But in regards to film watching, some of my favorite genres have been attacked to keep it loose and fun, many of which I don’t regularly do as I’ve picked the bones of their canons clean long ago. Obviously, it’s been really fun getting back to these joys. For Horror, I’ve done 10 already, and I’m considering many of these watches then to be for this season, so I’ll note them here with a really brief description should any of you want to watch them.

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 © 2020 by James Clark

We live in a time when there are many who bid to confound the orthodox. Great gobs of rebels roam the town, threatening to install jurisdictions putting an end to the easy days for what is left of a mainstream. Our entertainments, for instance, smack of concussion. All these game-changers never doubt that their look and ways are destined to happily rule.

There is the possibility, however, that all of that critique will slip back to the defaults of religion and science (and their minions of humanism). It’s one thing to feel that something very important is not in play. It’s quite another thing, it seems to me, to define and embrace what that elusive phenomenon is.

One remarkable effort in that area is the output of the films of Ingmar Bergman (1919-2007). The latter’s career was not without renown and homage. But looking for responses, in such a direction as we’ve mentioned, have not found cogent takers amidst film enthusiasts.

    There was a quite unique showdown, as to this silence—within the trilogy of three extremely violent films, namely, Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969)—which embedded itself on the heels of the production of Shame and the overtaking of The Passion of Anna, namely, The Rite (1969), with its remarkable emphasis upon deploying the motions of hands and fingers to open the elements which have been imprisoned for so many centuries. The Rite was a prototype, and yet a rich study of the vagaries of depending upon exotic and flawed rebels. A subsequent film, having more completely delivered the imperative of taking upon one’s self to find the riches of sensibility, namely, The Touch (1971), our film today, runs a gamut for all to see, while being doubly ignored within its drama and being known to the world as the worst film Bergman ever created. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

Christopher Nolan is an ambitious filmmaker that with every movie he makes sets out to challenge himself, whether its an unconventional narrative with Memento (2000) or making a non-franchise movie like Inception (2010) at a time when studios rarely greenlight projects not already based on an established property. He is a rare Hollywood studio filmmaker capable of making original big-budgeted movies that make hundreds of millions of dollars. This has given him the clout to make his boldest movie yet – Tenet (2020), a sprawling spy thriller that explores the manipulation of time.

This movie is a testament to the kind of juice Nolan has within the industry. He is able to command a budget over $200 million starring John David Washington, whose casting as the movie’s lead must have raised eyebrows with studio executives as he has no experience with a project of this magnitude or the kind of drawing power of someone like Leonardo DiCaprio or Matthew McConnaughy – actors who helped sell Nolan’s previous ambitious fare. Even the casting of Robert Pattinson as Washington’s co-star was something of a risk as he is no longer the bankable Twilight heartthrob he once was having rejected Hollywood for the most part to appear in foreign and independent films.

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by Sam Juliano

Labor Day 2020 and still we have COVID-19 with us, in some regions in a very big way.  Fairview schools are opening on Tuesday, September 8th (tomorrow) but only with teachers.  Students will remain home until further notice as districts statewide and nationwide are taking precautions.  We are also in Election Day mania and I have found myself too often embroiled with online political rows.  Though we only have eight weeks left this will surely be the longest eight weeks one can imagine.  Wishing everyone the best moving forward.  Jamie Uhler has joyously announced his annual Halloween Horror Fest and we have four of his stupendous capsule reviews posted on this MMD.  So thrilled to have this staple back again for the fifth or sixth year running!  I am followed the capsules with a few more of my recent Night Gallery segment reviews on FB.

Phase IV (S. Bass… 1974) 

The first viewing of the season was a rewatch, but the first complete one for this film, as all the previous ones had been scattershot, incomplete, or in parts, rendering Saul Bass’ only film, 1974’s Phase IV to near incomprehension. Seen in whole in one sitting, it becomes something of a highly curious, nearly great film. His graphic design background served him well for a whole slew of now iconic title sequences (mostly for Hitchcock, but he did a beaut for Scorsese too) and assistant director work (all those really cool split screens and intense croppings in the start of Frankenheimer’s interesting failure Grand Prix from 1966), but for just one film, he got to call all the shots. His background solves the first, and main, problem of the script: how to tell a monster movie where killer ants take over before the widespread advent of enhanced realistic computer effects. He has wildlife photographer Ken Middleham grab a telephoto super zoom lens and shoot all the ant sequences in horrifying close up, rendering them full screen and out of scale, adding a surreal, ominous quality as they slowly outsmart and take over the scientific compound run by our two scientist protagonists. One gets bitten and goes slowly crazy, seeing their only chance of survival in killing the queen all the others are working in service of, while the other attempts to understand their clearly brooding and growing super intelligence. The film ends mysteriously and abruptly, without the reveal of what the next step in the evolution—Phase V—would be. It only adds to the chic, ’70’s quality of it all and while the wild, arty montage was shot for this purpose it was ditched by the financiers before release. It’s quite shameful—I was able to watch it on youtube (it’s also been finally included on recent Apple 4K releases), and I must say, it adds a nightmarish cacophony of hellish blood red imagery and droning synth operatic score, showing humans living as ants under their rule in pyramid like colonies. With it, it’d be one of the era’s great cult treasures, but it’s more or less that now, but here’s to hoping most revisit it and see the correct ending. What a way to start!

The Alchemist Cookbook (J. Potrykus… 2016) 

What can I say, a single screening of Joel Potrykus’ indie-breakthrough Buzzard from a few years ago made a life long fan in me. It’s such a gloriously subversive comedy that I sat giggling at the sheer exactness of his critique of modern work life. As companies cut themselves more and more from the humans they employ their capital largely becomes a set of buzzards picking over the bones of whatever they can grab to survive. Of course, the brilliance is in the double entendre; any system that operates this way is itself a buzzard-like leech on society, itself lurching year to year cravingly trying to survive in the face of all common sense. Given the insane nature of how Potrykus renders his film, I eagerly await all his new features, pushing them on friends and strangers alike in ecstatic recommendation. Since Buzzard, I loved Relaxer, a Tarkovsky-like seance for the incel, gamer set, a nightmarish video-game playing marathon for existence, all set in an ever darkening, socially alienated world. But, again, because it’s rendered with the sharpness of a stand-up comic (itself the topic of his debut, Ape), you gleefully watch it flicker past your eyeballs. In between these two, he managed The Alchemist Cookbook, something of a spiritual Horror statement on the topic of depression. Surprisingly for me given my fandom of the earlier works, it largely forgoes humor, instead posing deep questions on what it is we’re watching here, the tale of a schizophrenic, Sean, who has taken to living isolated out in the woods, only occasionally being brought food and supplies from friend Cortez. Once Sean realizes he has only one pill left, and that Cortez has forgotten to bring more, his already tenuous mental state further erodes. Soon, he’s using his alchemy experiments to summon night demons and kill forest animals, but we’re left wondering if it’s all a lark from a (highly) unreliable narrator. A shifting time signature in the films plotting further complicates things as we’re left wondering if Cortez is Sean, them each representing physical embodiments of a mind split neatly in two. Once we learn that Cortez faces trouble back home and must live in the woods alongside Sean, the time loop exposition seems to close fully onto itself as Sean increasingly looks for ways out of his hellish, depressive mindset. Amazingly both the Horror and jet-black humor spill forth in the films last reel, again revealing Potrykus to be one of the most interesting modern American directors. It’s his most low-key film yet, but in some ways its opaque ideas offering the sense that this is a director with many, many more tricks up his sleeve.  

10 to Midnight (J. L. Thompson… 1983)

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