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Archive for November, 2016

frank-1

by Sam Juliano

Though Lynne Rae Perkins’ Frank and Lucky Get Schooled is brilliantly conceived and is astonishingly diverse in its unique unfolding of its domino structure, it remains a moving story of friendship from the moment boy meets dog till the final autumnal vignette  when it is revealed that the human protagonist values his beloved black lab’s company more than anything in the world.  This was the message too in Peggy Rathman’s Caldecott Medal winning Officer Buckle and Gloria where a policeman and his trick performing dog served as a team to introduce students a host of imperative safety tips, but in the end it was their relationship that mattered most of all.  Books about the intractable bond between an impressionable laddie and his cherished canine companion are plentiful,  some like Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller, William H. Armstrong’s Sounder and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Shiloh -the latter two winners of the Newbery Medal- are now seen as literary classics and classroom favorites, as well as prime examples of coming-of-age stories with baptism-under fire denouements.  Rawls’ novel, shattering and beautifully written ended with the bleakest resolution ever posed in this genre when a boy’s two redbone coon hounds, Old Dan and Little Ann save him from a mountain lion, but at the steepest price when the former is mortally wounded and succumbs the next morning.  Little Ann is so devastated that she loses her will to live and dies on Old Dan’s grave, leaving the young owner disconsolate and grief-stricken.  But he returns later to the graves to find a giant red fern growing between them.  Some vital lessons about life and responsibility are integral to a true appreciation of these books, all of which can also be framed as slice-of-life adventure stories.

Perkins, an eminent writer who won the coveted Newbery Medal in 2006 for Criss Cross, is also an extraordinary illustrator, and her dual talents are stunningly showcased in Frank and Lucky, which takes no sides in favoring either component.  The art in the book is varied in style, density and canvas size but the pen, ink and watercolor tapestries are as sublime as any of the more pictorially conspicuous picture books of 2016, and to boot, it is accompanied by Newbery level prose. (more…)

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broken-flowers-1

 © 2016 by James Clark

      Just as we have to resist Jarmusch’s Dead Man being seen to be a Johnny Depp movie, we have to resist that remarkable artist’s Broken Flowers (2005) being palmed off as a Bill Murray movie. Roger Ebert regards the latter work as creating “a gentle cloud of happiness,” due to its providing a banal sense of life being short. That would be as close to absolutely wrong as you can get. Notwithstanding the film industry’s survivalist zeal to wrap up their products as various kinds of deluxe candy, the upbeat dimension of Broken Flowers traces to a far from infantile context the neglect of which puts one forever in the dark about the gift at hand.

Don, the protagonist, one of the nouveau riche IT Klondike powers, receives a letter purporting to bring him up to speed that the writer—unidentified and of unknown address—has, after 19 years of raising a child of theirs which had never been brought to his attention, suddenly felt the need to put him on her Friends list. Before she can finalize the dropping of the other shoe, Don has, with the urging and information provided by a sleuthing-besotted neighbor, turned up at her door. If this so-called Penny ever was worth more than her name, she surely isn’t now. “Donny, so what the fuck do you want coming here? I don’t remember any happy ending…” Amidst a rural eyesore cluttered with motorcycles and motorcyclists, the distaff gives Don a seasoned -brawler’s Offensive Tackle’s block leaving him reeling off the Halloween porch. A couple of soft-spoken intimates (sort of sounding like Dead Man’s Charlie just before the killing commenced) beat him senseless and, with multiple facial wounds, he wakes up in his car in the middle of a harvested field you can be sure having nothing to do with Penny’s profit centers. (more…)

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peddles-1

by Sam Juliano

Studies have revealed that pigs are as cognitively complex as dogs.  Furthermore, they are emotionally and socially sophisticated, they register sensitivity and hurt feelings and they possess sound long term memories.  Some have been known to read people’s temperaments.  Pigs like to play and are also easily bored.  It shouldn’t come as any kind of a surprise then that pigs have fared exceptionally well in literature, both as revered and intelligent animals in children’s literature but also as enterprising characters in some of the most celebrated works by authors as diverse as George Orwell, P.G. Wodehouse and Beatrix Potter.  They were hunted and decapitated in the popular high school novel Lord of the Flies, and they are often the butt of false declarations that intimate they are dirty animals, when in the fact the reverse is true.  Even the phrase “You sweat like a pig” is a fallacy as pigs don’t even sweat!

To be sure the pig has generated some of some of the most affectionately engaging stories and picture books, and in the eyes of children they can do little wrong.  The Little Little Pigs remains one of the most popular fairy tales, and David Weisner won a Caldecott Medal for his own anarchic, multi-dimensional  take on it.  Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith beguiled readers with their irreverent The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, though the big bad wolf was really the star, and the beloved James Marshall imparted his own measure of incomparable humor to his own take on the tale.  Ian Falconer’s Olivia has led to a multiple entry series about the incorrigible female pig with human traits. The most beloved pig of them all is Wilbur, the fun-loving object of the spider Charlotte’s affection in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, the most celebrated American children’s book ever written.  The pig was the hero of the critically-acclaimed movie Babe, which spawned two sequels. (more…)

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Vanishing Point

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By J.D. Lafrance

Vanishing Point (1971) is one of the great existential counter-culture films of the 1970s. Like similar-minded films, most notably, Easy Rider (1969) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), this car chase movie features an anti-hero protagonist who equates the open road with freedom and staying in one place for too long with death. It came out at a time when the American public was feeling angry and scared at their government as a result of the assassination of important political figures. This film tapped into those feelings and channeled them through its protagonist who is at odds with The Man. For years, it has quietly amassed a devoted cult following and several high profile admirers, chief among them filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and bands like Primal Scream and Audioslave.
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arrival_ver4

by Sam Juliano

Ah well.  One of the biggest political upsets of all time has transpired and many are shaking their heads in disbelief.  I predicted Donald J. Trump would win the Republican nomination months ago and I faced quite a bit of scorn and opposition.  I had a perverse side that was actually rooting for him to KO such “progressive luminaries” like Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, especially since I was certain a win in November could never happen.  Then things got tighter, and I stated on last week’s MMD that Trump could well stage an upset.  This election will be discussed over and over and over again, and its implications will last a lifetime.  This is not a political site of course, though the diverse MMD is the place to share views, complaints, expectations and general lamentations.  In any case, I am happy this madness has finally ended,  so focus can now be arts exclusive.  or can it be?

The Caldecott Medal Contender series has been moving forward without a hitch and I want to thank everyone for the comments and support.  The series is doing quite well by every barometer, and authors and illustrators have been sharing them on FB.  Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance have written some fantastic films reviews, and will continue well into the future.

Lucille and I managed to see five (5) new releases over the weekend.  This was quite a strong line-up, though for now I have resisted going the full five stars with any.  This could change down the line.  We also attended a children’s book event at Books of Wonder in Manhattan.  Bob Shea, Jason Carter Eaton, Ruth Chan, Tim Miller and Greg Pizzoli presented their new books. (more…)

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this-is-the-earth-1

by Sam Juliano

Several months ago world famous theoretical physicist and renowned university professor Stephen Hawking issued a dire warning that if the human race were not careful they could bring about their demise before one-hundred years have eclipsed.  He specified three major fears -nuclear war, climate change and genetically engineered viruses as potentially lethal to the continuation of the human race, but sustained abuse of our resources and the planet we live on remains in the view of most scientists as our primary concern.   Hawking warned that we were at least a hundred years from having the ability to live elsewhere in space, so the next century will tell if we will still be around to to enact that relocation.  The picture book authors Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander in a newly published work pointedly titled This is the Earth, have also asserted that man is responsible for the plundering of our natural assets because of greed and gross carelessness, but also because our designs have been so notoriously self-serving and our claims excessive and unnecessary.  Yet, Shore and Alexander have not thrown in the towel, nor have they opined that we are past the point of no return, indeed their environmental plea, couched in verse patterned after The House That Jack Built, is meant to keep our alarming rate of pollution and contamination in check by adapting the practice of recycling, riding bicycles and maintaining gardens, even in urban areas.  While young readers may well be unnerved by the confessional aspects of a race prone to overindulgence, they are nonetheless invited to make their own individual donations towards an ecological equilibrium too often knocked out of whack by misplaced priorities, may own sadly included. (more…)

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tree-1

by Sam Juliano

The story of the extraordinarily perspicacious fifteen-year-old German/Dutch girl Anne Frank, enshrined in a diary she maintained during two years of Nazi occupation, has remained a staple in classrooms, has been translated into seventy languages, and according to some accounts has a wider circulation worldwide than any book other the Bible.  It is hardly a wonder that such a treasured document would hold such emotional sway in view of its brilliant young writer’s tragic end, yet her her life-affirming resilience in the face of this impending doom has inspired and moved readers to their cores. Volumes upon volumes of critical studies of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and the continued research into her short life have been the bane of historical scholars, and there can be no doubt this impassioned life force has moved mountains across the globe, no doubt precipitating more tears than any document ever written.  Stage plays, films and documentaries on her life and the twenty-five months she spent holed up in a series of tiny rooms, sealed off by a bookcase have been plentiful and sustained, yet there are other angles that haven’t been explored both as a narrative aside or as a symbolic extension.

In the achingly poignant picture book, poetically written by Jeff Gottesfeld and illustrated by the Caldecott Honoree Peter McCarty, The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window, a horse chestnut tree standing outside a secret annex that shields eight people from concentration camp doom during the height of the Holocaust takes on the dual role of guardian and as a gateway to the sealed off outer world.  In an afterward Gottesfeld confirms that young Anne made reference to the tree three times, though it is clear enough from the most stirring entry -the one the author showcases on the book’s opening page- that there is a metaphysical kinship with this venerable gateway to the outside world, one that encompasses beauty in its most unadulterated incarnation:

“The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.” (more…)

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year1

by J.D. Lafrance

Based on Christopher Koch’s 1978 novel of the same name, The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) was among a small group of films that came out in the early 1980s depicting the struggles of Western journalists to document the plight of Third World nations – Under Fire (1983) in Nicaragua; The Killing Fields (1984) was set in Cambodia; and a few years later Salvador (1986) came out with an unflinching portrayal of the volatile conditions in El Salvador. The Year of Living Dangerously is set in Indonesia during the attempted coup of President Sukarno by the 30 September Movement Communist party in 1965 and follows a group of foreign correspondents in Jakarta covering the increasing unrest.
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the-sound-of-silence-by-katrina-goldsaito

by Sam Juliano

                                           And in the naked light I saw
                                           Ten thousand people, maybe more
                                           People talking without speaking
                                           People hearing without listening.         -Paul Simon

An astounding anecdote was reported in the afterward of The Sound of Silence by the author Katrina Goldsaito.  One of the cinema’s greatest composers, Toru Takemitsu, lived in the house right next door to her father as he grew up in Tokyo.  When Goldsaito’s father asked the famous maestro “What is your favorite sound?” the answer came back that he had two:  “the wind through bamboo and the sound of silence.”  This latter musical concept, central to Takemitsu’s approach was shared by the great Frenchman Robert Bresson, who likewise understood that silence must be understood and interspersed between the creation of sounds for a truly effective aural embodiment.  Goldsaito relates that Takemitsu, in his book Confronting Silence that one day on the crowded Tokyo subway, he realized he must incorporate the sounds of the city into his compositions and that he wanted to give “meaning to the stream of sounds that penetrates the world we live in.”  Takemitsu invariably imparted this acoustic cognizance in a prolific career, weaving his inimitable compositions for some of the greatest Japanese cinematic luminaries including, Kurosawa, Oshima, Teshigahara, Shinoda, Ichikawa, Inamura and perhaps most famously for Masaki Kobayashi, and his 1965 ghost story omnibus Kwaidan, where he establishes the first episode’s mood and atmosphere well before a single character is seen onscreen.  In an interview Takemitsu declared “I wanted to create an atmosphere of terror.  But if the music is constantly saying, “Watch out!  Be scared!” then all the tension is lost.  It’s like sneaking up behind someone to scare them.  First, you have to be silent.  Even a single sound can be film music…We used real wood for effects.  I’d ask for a cra-a-a-ck sound, and they’d split a plank of wood, or rip it apart, or rend it with a knife.  Using all these sounds I assembled the sounds.”  In visual terms one could hardly appreciate or understand the luminosity of daylight without the corresponding blackness of the night..

Goldsaito’s mission in The Sound of Silence is to examine in a contemporary setting on the streets of Tokyo the  aural holding pattern between sounds, known in the vernacular as Ma, and to depict its elusive quality to a young boy named Yoshio, though as the resplendent tapestries throughout the book showcase by the subtle application of color, this desired quietude is omnipresent.  The color employment is a veritable purveyor of mood and an extension of sound decimal.  Ma is attained after assimilation is reached. The book’s title of course immediately evokes the venerated mid-60’s song of the same name by Simon and Garfunkle, although the generally accepted meaning of that song -the inability of people to communicate with each other emotionally – is a far cry from what Takemitsu and his devoted adherent Goldsaito have deemed vital in the understanding of sounds, whether they be how they are couched in an art form or deciphered in everyday life.  The author’s collaborator is the illustrator Julia Kuo, and the finished product not only confirmed she was up to this rather intricate assignment, but she brought the highest level of pictorial sublimity and thematic mastery to this unique enterprise. (more…)

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amish

by Sam Juliano

After months of media insanity we have reached the end of the long journey that commenced back in February.  The Trump vs. Clinton contest will soon -finally- be decided and I think the vast majority of us know well that a woman will soon be elected to the White House.  Mind you, it should go no other way, and I don’t completely rule out an upset in what appears to be a close race, but in going over state-by-state pollings it doesn’t seem that Trump has a path unless he runs the table with the swing states that are too close to call as of Sunday night.  Impossible?  Not at all.  Probable?  Not very. But the best part of all this is that we can move on to subjects and interests far more rewarding and to that I say yes!!!

Lucille, the five kids, Broadway Bob and I attended a Jimmy Webb concert on Friday night in Bethelem, Pennsylvania and we were thrilled to hear the baby boomer era song writer perform on piano his standards – “MacArthur Park,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston” “Worst That Can Happen” among others.  Webb did quite a bit of talking in between the songs, serving as a kind of stand up comic.  Some of that shtick worked, some did not.  For me hearing him do “MacArthur Park” and “Phoenix” two of my favorite songs ever was worth the long trip, though we did sleep in a hotel and traveled over to the Amish Country in Lancaster where we spent time at the wonderful Kitchen Kettle Village, having an early dinner at the family style Good and Plenty.  A ride on the horse and buggy and a trip through the farms also occupied our stay there.  We stayed at the accommodating Old Amish Inn on Saturday night and returned home on Sunday afternoon.  Not a movie week, but the coming seven day period will yield several in theaters as per plans.  We are approaching the time of the year that traditionally is the richest.

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