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By J.D. Lafrance

History remembers Francis Ford Coppola’s, Rumble Fish (1983) as a film that was booed by its audience when it debuted at the New York Film Festival and in turn was viciously crucified by North American critics upon general release. It’s too bad because it is such a dreamy, atmospheric film that works on so many levels. It is also Coppola’s most personal and experimental project — on par with the likes of Apocalypse Now (1979). From the epic grandeur of The Godfather films to the excessive Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Coppola has pushed the boundaries, both on-screen and off. He has almost gone insane, contemplated suicide, and faced bankruptcy on numerous occasions, but he always bounces back with another intriguing feature that is visually stunning to watch. And yet, Rumble Fish curiously remains one of Coppola’s often overlooked films. This may be due to the fact that it refuses to conform to mainstream tastes and stubbornly challenges the Hollywood system with its moody black and white cinematography and non-narrative approach.
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by Sam Juliano

Less is More  –    Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”, 1855

Of all the picture books being reviewed this year for the Caldecott Medal Contender series, there are none that aim lower than Toni Yuly’s Cat Nap.  Of course my contention isn’t remotely to disparage this third release in a wildly-popular series launched in January of 2015, but to state at the outset the age of the audience the book was written for.  It is no easy challenge to ensnare the attention of the youngest toddlers, and then to hold it for the duration, which in this case is thirty-four pages from the copyright panel to charming finale.  Even as seemingly an innocuous decision as to what color should adorn the end papers plays a vital role in this calculated effort to secure and maintain the most impressionable gathering of all.  Yuly opts for a solid fluorescent orange, a color for young children that denotes pumpkins, Halloween, their favorite fizzy drinks and ice, and generally a warm color that demands immediate attention.  From that opening splash we move into the basic conceit which is basically the psychological tug of war between an older cat and the kitten that is presumed to be her offspring.  The ink sketch of the kitten devilishly following the tail of the cat states the book’s recurring conflict in the sparest term possible, though Yuly illustratively expands the premise with her bold and minimalist digital lines and figures, which speak to the young ones without confusion or ostentation. Continue Reading »

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by Sam Juliano

For sheer breathtaking scenic beauty Barbara McClintock’s painstaking Lost and Found: Adele & Simon in China is as ravishing a picture book as any released in 2016, but as is invariably always the case with her meticulously detailed and annotated works there is so much more on display.  Though the renowned veteran author-illustrator has won a brace of awards and critical praise through her prolific career the American Library Association’s Caldecott committee has yet to honor one of her books with their signature gold or silver medal, though many times she was no doubt exceedingly close.  A few years back her exquisite collaboration with Jim Aylesworth, My Grandfather’s Coat garnered considerable buzz in on-line Caldecott discussions, that same year’s charming Where’s Mommy?, a follow up to the classic Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary landed on on numerous year-end best lists, and her sublime Dahlia several years back was recipient to a plethora of citations.  Possessing a discerning sensibility the artist has completed many fairy tale interpretations, a number of which are the most magnificent covers of some of those works to date.  The elusive Caldecott may well be attributed to intense competition at the wrong time or just some plain old bad luck, but either way this is truly unfortunate situation.

This year McClintock has produced two masterful books.  The first, released during the first quarter, is Emma and Julia Love Ballet, which was the subject of the third entry in this series.  Though both this earlier work and Lost and Found sit comfortably among the best picture books of the year, they are distinctly dissimilar – one is more of a chamber piece dominated by intimate vignettes, set in the big city and surrounding suburbs.  while the other entails a turn-of-the-century historical journey, is epic in scope, has been exhaustively researched, and showcases a pictorial intricacy that rivals anything done by Peter Spier or the Japanese nonagenarian Mitsumasa Anno, the 1984 winner of the prestigious international “Children’s Literature Nobel Prize” Hans Christian Anderson Award which was given for his wildly popular and magnificent “Journey” books, in which a character travels through a nation’s landscape, densely populated with pictures referencing that country’s art, literature, culture, and history.  McClintock has accomplished this very thing in Lost and Found with the full-scale assistance of her son, Larson DiFiori, a doctoral candidate in Asian religious traditions at Brown University.  Indeed McClintock in an afterward acknowledges his vital role: Continue Reading »

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by Sam Juliano

When I first set eyes on Dan Richards’s and Jeff Newman’s Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly? I immediately decided that there was no way it could ever be part of my annual Caldecott Medal Contender series.  It appeared to be slight, discombobulated and artistically slapdash, not to mention vaguely derivative.  I arrived at this summary conclusion a few months ago when I had secured a few dozen 2016 picture books that were under the radar of various on line review sites.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that there were flashier books in the mix, or that some of the others featured stories of more social urgency, or maybe even that others were more polished.  I can’t say for sure, but I subsequently underwent a one-eighty after I read the book to a half dozen first grade classes.  This experience allowed for two vital discoveries – one, the kids in each class adored the book, and two I was able to revisit the comic book style illustrations and irresistible lead characters.  It is often said that the very best art, music and literature is the kind that doesn’t make the very best first impression.  We know this is true of some of Puccini’s operas, Melville’s Moby Dick, and of more recent vintage Simon & Garfunkle’s “The Sound of Silence,” all of which were originally met with indifference or scorn.  Many now classic films, like Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes were misunderstood initially and took years before they were regarded as masterpieces.  But in the world of children’s books this propensity is common, as some books by their very subject and style don’t invite deafening proclamation, rather their virtues grow at a stately pace after encore sessions and additional discoveries.  Yet, it seems the most reliable audience for kids’ books are the kids themselves.  The adults will have plenty of time to catch up.

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thunder-boy-jr

by Sam Juliano

Thunder Boy Jr. has a problem.  He has been saddled with the most unconventional name since that imp like creature, who possessed the skill to turn straw into gold disappeared after losing his temper many years ago. Though the tyke who looks like a younger version of Elvis adores his father, he wants his own identity.  One’s name in life the way Thunder Boy thinks is an all-encompassing label that embodies all he does, all he represents, all he accomplishes.  As such this fiercely independent toddler rejects any notion that his name must be patterned on the characteristics or exploits of any member of his kin.  He wants a normal name.  His mom is known as Agnes, his sister is Lillian – those don’t attract any kind of attention, nor a second thought.  Secretly he abhors this cursed identification, as it flies in the face of what he has done and what he hopes to achieve.  It is almost as if he is a clone, with his entire life spoken for in advance.  The boy thinks his father is awesome, but he is a different person who must make his mark in the world.  Creativity and world view are not attributes to be passed down from generation to generation, they are to be developed and stood for.  But there is a hitch in this unique scenario.  This family is native American, and the significance of a name far outstrips its regard in a conventional household where it is largely an afterthought.

In the life-affirming, universal picture book Thunder Boy Jr., written by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, a personal aspiration that transcends parental expectation eventually segues into a common understanding via the bonding of father and son, which is the central dynamic in the book, even with mother and daughter a vital part of this baptism-under-fire equation.   Alexie, himself a Native American, is a celebrated, award-winning writer, whose noted works of fiction include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Reservation Blues, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.  Like his titular character he was named after his father.  But the real challenge in Thunder Boy Jr. was to bring a compelling cultural element to a story with an omnipresent theme, to bridge the past with the present, but in so doing amplify a tradition that held a vital importance in Indian households.  Even the book’s electrifying resolution doesn’t disavow the familial institutions that made passage particularly meaningful, but rather brings these all-too-enterprising kinsfolk to a shared understanding of cultural assimilation. Continue Reading »

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 © 2016 by James Clark 

      Broken Flowers, the Jarmusch film from 2005, has introduced, quite startlingly for a project concerning crushing problematics, a figure who is not hopelessly lost. Carmen, the “animal communicator,” whom protagonist Don regards as having lost her once impressive (to him) rational acuity (as a lawyer), sends him on his way as understood to be a total waste of her time. What makes her so sure of this? The actions of Lone Man, in the film, The Limits of Control (2009), contribute to that understanding, though his career has much more in common with that of the contract killer, Ghost Dog, in the 1999 Jarmusch production of the same name.

Over the past several postings, I have highlighted recurrent pluses and minuses enacted in this filmmaker’s work (and recurrent performers), in witty and heartfelt scenarios, for the sake of awakening viewers to a dilemma like no other, and which would sustain the essential drama far beyond the theatre. Once again, as we get to the nub of The Limits of Control, these currents must be shown in action. But here, instead of concentrating almost entirely upon detailing patterns and personas amid socio-economic preoccupations in the service of reiterating that life on earth is not nearly as lively as it could be, we’ll also look to the cinematography, visual and sonic design and performance as marshalled as never before in a Jim Jarmusch film, in order to embrace the love and ruthlessness evinced by Carmen, and being given a go here by a flamenco troupe, an always-nude hooker and a killer devoted to tai chi. (A very significant shift in sensual delivery appears in the form of the camera work of the brilliant exponent of mood, Christopher Doyle—having lifted many viewers of major works by Wong Kar Wai—replacing here the tenure of Robby Muller, Jarmusch’s long-time stalwart on behalf of kookiness.) Continue Reading »

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by Sam Juliano

The Brothers Grimm meet film noir and the silent cinema’s German Expressionism in a dazzling graphic novel and gender bender titled Snow White by Matt Phelan.  Show business, the Ziegfeld Follies, and the onset of the Great Depression  after the thriving Roaring Twenties are woven into a wholly irresistible updating of the most beautiful girl in the land and her seven protectors that begins in Manhattan’s Central Park in the winter of 1918, less than a year after the end of the First World War.   Though the ink and watercolor paintings are wildly diverse and comic book in style the palette mixes sepia tone with conventional black and white, much like the silent cinema of the period.  The sparing use of red impacts the book’s themes dramatically, and when full color appears late in the book its use is celebratory.

Snow White’s opening, which segues into a nearly book-long flashback recalls two of film noir’s most iconic works, Robert Siodmak’s 1946 The Killers  and Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Boulevard, when the leading men are either dead or will be killed within minutes, and the remainder of the films document how they came to be doomed.  The NYPD crime scene tape cordons off the area around a glass coffin, and investigators attempt to pry vital information from a gang of seven who resemble the Dead End kids.  After asking what is going on, and who is the victim, one boy welling up with tears is only able to offer up three words: White as snow.   Continue Reading »