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Archive for January, 2015

blizzard cover

by Sam Juliano

As I sit down to pen my review of John Rocco’s wildly popular picture book Blizzard, a swirling snowstorm is setting in on the northeastern New Jersey outside of Manhattan, where my family and I reside.  While the projected numbers may not quite equal the 1978 super storm Rocco chronicles, this is a major event that will have people digging out for days, not to mention all the severe travel restrictions that lie ahead.  Nightmare scenarios that include late-arriving plows, the inability to drive to a store for food and supplies, and the effects of cabin fever are part of the blizzard experience.  Always a fun time for the kids, who see the arrival of snowflakes as a passport to scholastic absence, it is that relatively rare time to ride sleds, throw snowballs and build snowmen and igloos with reckless abandon.  It is a time when nature plays the role of the great equalizer, neutralizing parental authority, as a result of the communal task at hand.  The arrival of a blizzard brings on a divergent but amenable mix: excitement, consternation, uncertainty and claustrophobia, though the perceptions of kids widely differ from that of the more responsible adults.  One thing is certain: whatever plans one had in place are all left on the back burner when a blizzard strikes.  The priorities are down to one. (more…)

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frida cover

by Sam Juliano

The Mexican/American Yuyi Morales made a strong bid for last year’s Caldecott Medal with the wildly-popular Nino Wrestles the World, finally settling for the American Library Association’s Pura Belpre Award for Latino illustrators.  Her follow-up, Viva Frida,  is something diametrically opposite in theme, presentation and style, though sharp eyed fans can at least connect some visual dots.  Frida Kahlo, was the wife of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.  She was stricken with polio at age six, a serious disease that kept her right leg crippled for the remainder of her life.  At age eighteen she was further mutilated as the result of a serious bus accident, and was forced to absorb painful medical procedures for the rest of her shortened life.  (She passed at 47 in 1954).  A natural storyteller from a young age, her youth was riotously jovial until the time she was physically compromised.  Her tumultuous marriage with Rivera brought on a dysfunctional relationship, though one dotted with the deepest of passions.  Physically, they were a study in contrasts: Rivera, strapping and rotund, Frida fragile and demure.  Their story is the centerpiece in Julie Taymor’s 2002 Frida, an appropriately episodic film that starred Selma Hayek and Alfred Molina in the leads.  Kahlo was a bi-sexual who is known to have had affairs with Josephine Baker (the subject of Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson’s Josephine, another Caldecott Medal Contender) and Leon Trotsky, the Marxist revolutionary and theorist.  Rivera is also known to have engaged in extramarital affairs, including one with his wife’s sister Cristina.  Kahlo, whose work sometimes featured Christian and Jewish themes, was a master of the self-portrait who once said:  “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am on the subject I know best.  I was born a bitch.  I was born a painter.” (more…)

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map_specnewsdct-93_ltst_4namus_enus_485x273

by Sam Juliano

As a monster blizzard bears down the NYC region (those in the midwest have been seeing this kind of weather right along) weather forecasts are calling for upward of two feet of snow on Tuesday and Wednesday.    Hence most of the upcoming week will be one of digging out.  I can only imagine and dread what my friend John Grant will be getting up in his West Milford area abode.  certainly snow lovers will get all their fill and way more than that.

This past week has been spent home writing the final wave of Caldecott book reviews, and recovering from the final stage of a once terrible stomach virus, and continued depression over our unconscionable loss of a few weeks ago, a loss I am still in denial over.  In a rare occurrence, no new films were seen, though this is traditionally the worst time of the year for quality openings, what with all the attention paid on the Oscar nominees.  I do look forward to the Academy Award live action and animated shorts and to the documentary shorts.

Hence I particularly look forward to hearing what others have seen or done.

 

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josephine cover

by Sam Juliano

Josephine Baker’s life is a story of oppression, resilience, geographical upheaval and heroism.  It is a story of segregation, racism, impoverishment and international fame.  It is a story of selflessness and discovering something you love more than life itself – something that both identified who you were and were inspired to become.  It is a story hope and resounding success.  A former dancer, Patricia Hruby Powell, has authored a six-chapter, 102 page picture book in free verse to page in homage of the legendary African-American dance icon, whose life is as fascinating as her professional climb to the top Mt. Everest.  Powell’s narrative is showcased in bold and italicized typography that exudes the dearth of discipline evident in the dancer’s life, but even more appropriately in accordance with the vibrant color, energy and flamboyance one associates with this art form.  The spacing, the use of capital letters, the variance of poetic line structure, the variant manner the prose is incorporated into black panels and pages with illustrations is gloriously dazzling and undisciplined, much as its subject’s life is. Powell is endlessly engaging, never afraid to convey the unconscionable aspects of American society during its darkest hours, always conveying the information towards its targeted young audience tastefully and starkly without ostentation. I particularly admired the author’s use of vintage Josephine Baker quotes to characterized and enhance the flow of the narrative, and a few of these include philosophical commentary that does pass judgement on the deliberately tame aspects of the narrative that deal with racial injustice.  Powell’s writing should rightly put her squarely in the Newbery race. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

E. B. Lewis is one of America’s pre-eminent picture book illustrators.  He won a Caldecott Honor for the austerely beautiful watercolor paintings in Coming On Home Soon that he negotiated in collaboration with Jacqueline Woodson, with whom he also teamed up for two extraordinary works, The Other Side and Each Kindness, the latter the winner of a Coretta Scott King Honor.  His work for Nickki Grimes and others has also brought on critical acclaim.  Lewis himself acknowledges in a passionate afterward, that though he had illustrated about sixty books, his assignment for All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom posed the biggest challenge of his career.  The plaintive nature of Angela Johnson’s spare and moving prose no doubt inspired the artist to create some of his finest work yet, at least equal to what he accomplished with Woodson. (more…)

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winter_bees

by Sam Juliano

It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.   -James Joyce

Over the years picture books set in winter have been both plentiful and varied.  In fact if you were to ask a trivia question about the most prevalent word to appear in the titles of the Caldecott Medal winners, it would be the one that starts with the letter ‘s’ and ends with the letter ‘w.’  Still like any other preponderance, truly great ones are rare.  Owl Moon, Snowflake Bentley, The Snowy Day, White Snow Bright Snow and The Big Snow won Caldecott Medals, while the more recent Snow by Uri Schulevitz won an Honor.  Just earlier this year John Rocco released Blizzard, about the ultimate snow event.  There is something about snow that that has always captured the imagination of writers, artists and filmmakers. James Joyce wrote the most famous passage on it, but equally unforgettable are poems by Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. In classical music one might envision Schubert’s masterpiece song cycle Winterreise, or Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams Symphony” or his ballets, or perhaps even something as exotic as Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia.  Filmmakers too have always been fascinated with the possibilities of this wonder of nature, and just a few of a long scroll of movies set in the snow include The Dead, The Shining, The Fast Runner, Fargo, The Ascent and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.   (more…)

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teacher monster cover

by Sam Juliano

The first time I ever entertained unholy thoughts that my teacher might be a monster was was back in the 60’s, when as a third grader, I faced the everyday terror of a punishing woman named Isabel Ewan.  This was a teacher who exercised disciplinary punishment with impunity.  The slightest infraction resulted in an edict to enter the clothing room, where the fearful Mrs. Ewan ordered you to slap yourself in the face.  If the response was half hearty she’d bark ‘harder!’ and if she unsatisfied, she’d help matters out by holding your hand and assisting in the self-flagellation.  Our class learned the following year that this monster was vanquished by the school’s Board of Education, but for all we knew at that time, she may have just wanted to go somewhere else to teach unruly kids the lesson of a lifetime.  Yet, this monster was all too real, not symbolic, and not with the kind of benevolent side seen in Mrs. Kirby the titular character in Peter Brown’s delightfully subversive My Teacher is a Monster!  Brown, whose masterful Mr. Tiger Goes Wild shockingly missed out on Caldecott Medal and honor acknowledgement last year states at the very outset that his book is about “misunderstood teachers and their misunderstood students” and in conclusion that “monsters are not always what they seem.” (more…)

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Mr-Turner-1

 © 2015 by James Clark

      We recently bought a visual art piece that we find very absorbing. It consists of a reddish screen of Plexiglas within which there is a very thin chair-like configuration. The plastic/glass is assembled in such a way as to conjure the sunlight impinging on it as setting off delicate fires along the trajectories of the chair design. The artist, who has developed a world-wide market for this kind of work, very fortunately lives in Toronto and we’ve been treated to his observations upon his career. A former Texan and one-time Double-A baseball pro, he can’t stand the company of artists.

It was impossible not to think of him when encountering Mike Leigh’s almost incredibly rich disclosure (from 2014) of the ways of British “Romantic” (pre-Impressionist, pre-Abstractionist) painter and water colorist, William Turner (1775-1851), known as “the painter of light.” Despite a brief initial scene where the protagonist, standing in an expanse of farmland, communes with a Dutch sunset, quickly sketching impressions into a notepad, we’re soon caught up in a tradesman’s preoccupation with manufacturing marketable canvases for Londoners with loads of discretionary assets. The artist, for all his occupying a pedestal back home—addressing his canvas of the moment like a rotund golf legend chipping out of a bunker at the Masters on a sunny day—is most specifically a continuum of his (caddy) father (always referred to as Daddy, who used to sell his juvenilia from the barber shop which he once presided over), functioning now as his conduit for paints, brushes and canvas, and also preparer of pigments and stretchers, not to mention his presiding over the retail outlet on the premises. Early on we see him ushering into the precincts comprising their home and William Jr.’s studio a couple of prospective buyers. (In fact there are three in that party, but Turner Sr. only refers to “Gentlemen.” This touch forms part of a pattern of Turner’s thematically significant repeated underestimation of women. On his return from Holland [where we saw a pair of milk maids in old-fashioned costumes walking by the site of the genius plunged into matters too refined for all but the rare, advanced female], he shares an unintelligible joke with Daddy, something about “cackling females.”) The gentlemen art fans stand in an ante room strikingly murky, but Sr. assures them, “The darkness is to a purpose…” He leads them to a doorway and with the vaguely mountebank flourish, “Behold!” opens the way to a dazzling southern exposure, the better to set the scene for the irresistible magic of those latest works of the painter of light, tableaux markedly leaning toward seascapes with arresting clouds and lighting effects. (Turner himself peeks through a peep-hole to see how things are going. Then his ex drops by, along with their two daughters, one of whom with a new-born baby and needing new finances, and, after they are ushered out of his studio by the housekeeper and come to the living room, Turner kicks a chair across the workspace.) (more…)

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starlight cover

by Sam Juliano

There is a defining moment in Kristy Dempsey and Floyd Cooper’s A Dance Like Starlight that coaxes comparison with Italian neo-realism.  After an aspiring young ballet dancer completes a backstage recital performance she recoils sheepishly, lacking all measure of self-confidence.    A ballet master witnesses both her lovely turn and the embarrassment she is unable to conceal from being watched, and poignantly reassures her:

I turned away when I saw him watching, ashamed how he saw me trying to do their dance./But he took my face in his hands and looked into my eyes./”Brava, ma petite,” he told me.  “Brava.”/That’s when hope picked my dream up from the floor of my heart, just like Mama said,/and it started growing.

starlight 4

The mixed media application (referred to as a “subtractive” process that yields sensory textures) of the girl’s face in close-up is incredibly powerful – her dreams and nightly wishes to the stars that never appear, and the opportunities that are seemingly within the realm of fiction paint a picture of intense yearning and the sadness that results from unrequited hope.  This is the face of someone who has worn herself out, one of innocence and conviction, one of someone who tearfully has seen the implausibility of what she imagines.  This is the face one associates with many other talented African-Americans from that period, many of whom were as gifted as any in their field, but were denied equal opportunity because of their color.  It is a face that would melt the hardest of hearts, and is is one of the most unforgettable single illustrations in any picture book released in 2014. (more…)

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by Jaime Grijalba.

Well, ain’t that one chubby beaver.

And with that tasty note, I want to inaugurate my official top 20 list of the best films of 2014 that I’ve managed to see before the announcement of the Oscar nominations, which is my own personal cut-off for this lists year after year. Now, be reminded that even if I go the extra mile to have more films on my plate, I still missed quite a few of the most interesting ones, specially regarding the awards, I haven’t seen the likes of Birdman, American Sniper, Inherent Vice, The Hobbit, Mr. Turner, among many others that have certain looks and likes that they might’ve gone in my list. Anyway, if you want any update on what I end up seeing and rating, I think that reading my 10 Days of Oscar, as well as having some attention to my Muriels ballot should be enough.

So, as many of you already know, and for those who don’t I tell you now, the criteria for my list is that any movie, Tv miniseries, short film, anything, released in 2014 counts for my list; no 2013 films that had a 2014 major release will count here, only 2014 ‘pure’ choices. Many of these films were seen in film festivals and won’t be available for some time, but count these as if they were preemptive recommendations on movies to look out for. On the rest, not much to say, just let’s start with the number 20 and then we shall go up, up and away to number 1, which this year, was the only masterpiece I managed to rate and see. (more…)

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