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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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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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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

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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