Archive for September 30th, 2016


by Andrew Cook

I was asked to write about Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back for the countdown. Empire Strikes Back is one of the first films I fell in love with as a kid, and it’s an honor and joy to get to share my thoughts.

Empire Strikes Back is a wonderful film, and an immensely influential one that has defined our approach to sequels and mythological storytelling. It’s beautifully written, filmed, and scored, and Ben Burtt’s sound design is as essential as ever. Empire Strikes Back has a secret weapon, however, that takes it to a new level of depth: context. Empire Strikes Back has the privilege of being intricately connected to six other films, forming a thematic and conceptual nexus that makes each individual film more profound.

I’ll try not to spend too long on plot summary since I’m sure we’re all familiar, but I’d be remiss not to comment on how beautifully the film begins. The Empire Strikes Back opens by rendering the victory at the end of the previous film into a painfully short-lived respite. This is a great beginning in it’s own right, but is perhaps the first example of a great film being made greater by it’s inclusion in a whole. Over the series’ seven films, especially the prequel trilogy, Lucas and his collaborators build a theme of war as inherently Pyrrhic victory, of the need to put an end to violence and exist peacefully. Symbiosis, if you will. This theme begins in the previous film with Obi-Wan’s non-violent sacrifice, and it’s expanded upon here, but it only grows more powerful in subsequent films, and upon viewing the saga as a whole. From the total failure wrought by the heroes’ aggression in The Phantom Menace to the militaristic self-righteousness of the Jedi in Attack of the Clones to the moral decay of Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith, reverberations within the saga echo off each other. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Lauren Castillo can now properly be framed as a major picture book humanist of our day.  Her art may not project the humorous exuberance of Stephen Gamell, nor the socioeconomic impoverishment of Vera Williams but her work really aims for neither.  Castillo’s specialty is familial tenderness and endearment and by extension the human condition in its finest incarnation.  To be sure there are several other great author-illustrator humanists working today, but Castillo is among them.  Her captivating vignettes don’t attempt to mask the limitations of lower middle class struggles, but rather accentuate that no matter what life brings to its unsuspecting denizens, their siblings are what matter the most, and what ultimately brings resonance to all the madness.  The acclaimed author-illustrator won a well-deserved Caldecott Honor two years ago for Nana and the City, a tale of bonding in the big city fueled by child’s eye impressionism and followed that up with a stirring collaboration with renowned children’s literature veteran Eve Bunting in a wrenching examination of geographical upheaval that pushed the envelope for bittersweet resolve.  That tear-inducing effort, Yard Sale evinces the same melancholic tone and mood as its predecessor, and in the new book Twenty Yawns, which was penned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, once again Castillo treads affectionately on the familial camaraderie that means so much more than the various frolics and activities that define your typical vacation day.

Castillo has carried over the same timeless theme through three books -and retroactively even further back- even though the last two were written by two others, both rather iconic at that. This constitutes a remarkable unity when you consider that in two of the three works her illustrations were the sole mode of expression. Smiley’s first foray into the picture book literature is an economic distillation of the how some physically demanding summer activities will invariably wear down its exuberant protagonists, and how even in the horizontal position the specter of loved ones will lovingly intrude on the attempts to garner some needed respite.  After the first yawn crops up after a particularly vigorous tumble in the dunes, preceded by a burial in the sand, castle construction with the aid of plastic shovels, and circular swinging courtesy of human hands, the family is spent and mom calls for an early night. Indeed Smiley reveals that this beach session was the longest the family had ever endured, thus validating their enervated state.  After the intoxicating series of seafront camaraderie vignettes that includes two stunning double page panoramas, the transition to darkness and what transpires in the house is marked by an exquisite dusk panel, one signaled by the sun sinking below the horizon when “Strips of clouds were pink and red.”  Castillo’s watercolor wash of red, violet and yellow denotes the end of an especially arid day, one not easily set aside for the more nondescript nocturnal hues that eventually take over via a more all-encompassing makeover. (more…)

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