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Archive for December, 2017

by Sam Juliano

Most book historians see it as America’s answer to Britain’s beloved The Wind in the Willows.  Teachers have been partial to it almost from the time it was named a Newbery Honor book in 1953, months after it released.  Indeed the very fact it did not win the Newbery Medal remains in the children’s book world a bone of contention to match the Oscar snub of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941, especially since the vast majority can’t identity the title chosen over it.  Similar to the way some recall where they were when they heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination, former students have never forgotten when they first read the book.  Some like myself can vividly recall the year and place where it happened and teacher who presented it  (Grade 4, Mrs. Celeste Zematies, 1963/4), while many others seem to always recall the experience as something very special in their lives. Though the author of this tour de force of children’s literature only published three novels during a long life, the fascination for his persona has never abated.  Children who read Charlotte’s Web are invariably drawn to questions about its creator.  The intrigue is bolstered by an emotional connection to the book’s characters.  As a child I had hoped the author would still be alive to tell us that Charlotte had not really expired or that she would be resurrected in a sequel.  White lived twenty-one years more after the book was read to our class, and was highlighted in several articles of The Weekly Reader, so some of us never stopped hoping.  What I found out in adulthood is that White was an even more intriguing literary figure, and that after he passed away at the ripe old age of 86 on October 1,1985, information about his life were invaluable in piecing together how this towering literary figure came into the ideas that resulted in his three iconic works, one of which is his wildly popular maiden novel, Stuart Little.

Just barely one year ago two-time Caldecott Honor winning author-illustrator Melissa Sweet released her own homage to the E.B. White literature with a passionate straightforward biography, Some Writer!,  utilizing archival materials that helped paint a provocative portrait of the icon through letters, manuscripts, interview excerpts and photos that achieve immediate visual chemistry with Sweet’s trademark mixed media collage art.  It was an exceptional work, befitting such a beloved American icon, but as it turns out it is not the final word.  Indeed it is doubtful there will  ever be any measure of finality as far as White is concerned.  What even the most passionate White aficionados could hardly have expected was another book so soon and at that one worthy of comparison with its immediate predecessor conceptually and artistically, a collaboration of extraordinary prose and sublime art, pairing together a newcomer with a young artist who already has won a Caldecott Honor among a bevy of magnificent titles. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

Oliver Stone’s film, Nixon (1995) portrays the American political process as an unpredictable system that politicians have no hope of ever fully controlling. The best they can do is keep it in check most of the time. This theory can be seen in its embryonic stage in JFK (1991) with President John F. Kennedy being assassinated by shadowy forces within the political system, but it was not until Nixon that Stone was able to fully articulate it. As film critic Gavin Smith observed, “Nixon is a historical drama about the constructing and recording of history, assembled as we watch.” Stone has created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines fact and speculation with a cinematic style that blends various film stocks in a seamlessly layered, complex narrative. This fractured, overtly stylized approach draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film. As Stone has said in an interview, “I don’t pretend that it is reality.” This, in turn, allows him to deliver his message with absolute clarity.

Like Citizen Kane (1941) before it, Nixon traces the dramatic rise and fall of a historical figure who tried so hard to be loved by all but ended up being infamous and misunderstood. While Orson Welles’ film was a thinly-veiled attack on newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, Stone paints an almost sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins). Stone may not like Nixon personally, but he does try to explore what motivated the man’s actions and really get inside his head. The director even throws in a stylistic nod to Kane as part of the opening credits play over a shot of a dark and stormy night at the White House. The camera moves through the fence in a way that evokes the opening of Welles’ film with Kane’s imposing estate. And like Welles’ film, Nixon employs a flashback device as Nixon listens to the Watergate tapes and reflects on his life, from his tough childhood in Whittier, California, to his beleaguered political career that culminates with his tumultuous stint in the White House.
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Jean-Pierre Leaud in title role of French minimalist masterpiece “The Death of Louis XIV” (La Mort de Louis XIV), one fo the best films of 2017.

by Sam Juliano

Christmas Day 2017 is in the record books.  In the northeast it was a blustery cold day, dipping in the 20’s later in the night, though these chilling numbers will continue the rest of the west, dropping down even further.  We trust all our friends and readers had a special day and will have a great off week leading up till New Year’s Day.  This is that in-between week many of us wow to get so much done during, but too often not enough is negotiated.  My own family as per Christmas tradition spent the day at my young brother Paul and sister-in-law Rita’s (and their two girls) home in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.  Also as per tradition, we saw a film on Christmas night, catching the 8:00 P.M. showing of All the Money in the World at a local multiplex.  We broke tradition on Christmas Eve by venturing out to see a movie as well, Downsizing in Teaneck.

The Caldecott Medal Contender series continues, and is expected to run until around February 10th, meaning at least 12 to 14 more reviews on the top of the 20 published so far.  Jim Clark’s stupenous and candid review of Blade Runner 2049 posted this past week. The Greatest Television series Countdown -Part 2-  resumes on February 14th.

Year end movie going continues with theatrical screenings of “Downsizing” and “All the Money in the World” and blu ray and DVD screenings of “The Death of Louis XIV” (masterpiece!!!) and Lady Macbeth.” (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Evoking the immortal oil paintings of John Trumbull, Benjamin West and Archibald Willard, children’s literature luminary Wendell Minor, whose work has graced the covers of acclaimed biographical and historical volumes, has turned his eye on key events of the American Revolution, producing one lush tapestry after another in a picture book titled Ben’s Revolution: Benjamin Russell and the Battle of Bunker Hill, written by Nathaniel Philbrick.  The author culled a single episode from his 2013 work Bunker Hill, focusing on the complicity of a thirteen year old boy during the war’s earliest stages.  The British prevailed in what was tantamount to a Pyrrhic victory, as the colonists’ tenacity and heavy inflicting of casualties on the British redcoats served notice on their enemy while emboldening their own resolve.

Ben’s Boston  Philbrick sub-divides the ported over chapter into twenty-one mini sections.  Too short to be labeled “chapters” they are just topic divisions for young readers aimed at serving notice when the narrative either shifts in tone or setting.  A calm before the storm is posed in the two paragraph opening, when Ben, oblivious to mounting tensions, tends to the family cow near the saltwater “Back Bay” around his school hours, when he also helps his father’s printer friend Isaiah Thomas, fitting letters into words and learning their power far more efficaciously than he did in the classroom.  The Patriots Rebel!  Philbrick’s concise telling of the reason for the “Boston Tea Party” and the encapsulation of its execution is magnificently envisioned in Minor’s initial double page canvas, a nocturnal triumph for Patriots deciding the right timing was upon them.  The artist’s mutinous capture includes a hanging Union Jack and the incandescence emanating from lanterns on the dock, in life boats and on board of the Dartmouth, under a moon sliver far less illuminative than the “ghostly galleon” in Alfred Noyes’ famous poem about a colonial bandit gunned down by the redcoats. (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

      You have to be careful about tricking out one’s film with factors from other artists. The recent Blade Runner 2049 (2017), offers us a cornucopia of blue-chip endeavors, all of which putting Villeneuve’s spectacular and shallow film to shame.

First of all, there is the first Blade Runner (1982), overseen by an expert, Ridley Scott, regarding the monstrous problematics of interpersonal integrity. Like the current film, Scott’s Blade Runner has been seen as a science fiction entertainment, which is to say, a saga saturated with a baseline of classical scientific possibility. As to this very specific binary business of widespread 21st century navigating, one aspect especially should not be missed, namely, that the protagonist of the Scott film, namely, Deckard, first comes to view to us as quite happily retired from the LAPD where he was regarded as the foremost hunter of wayward slave robots. As we first see him enjoying the Oriental fare of a seriously decrepit Los Angeles sidewalk comfort bar, and being much food for thought as a rather vivacious player within a world of squalor and dazzle we’ve never encountered (this being 2019, not 1982), we know immediately that he’s having no trouble being stimulated by the world, and is steadfastly not being fixated upon “the good old days.” Only the threat of a trumped-up arrest from his former superior restores him to displaying the (now seen more than ever to be time-wasting) expertise in bloodily “retiring” bio-engineered maverick quasi-humans, known as “replicants,” designed for dangerous and super-human work. Thereby, we have a speculative back-story of a free-spirit coming to grips (however boozily) with matters transcending police work, including office politics and moonlighting. In marked (and careless) contrast to Deckard, the born skeptic, we have in the current film a docile, if lethal, replicant/ LAPD detective putting down (30 years after Deckard’s controversial going AWOL) remnants of a long-surpassed replicant issue with traces of that rebelliousness unwelcome to a rather dizzy police state. That the latter protagonist, namely, K [an abbreviation of his serial number], comes to a level of skepticism himself in the course of his employment would be a very different instrumentality from that overseen by Scott. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Yuletide merriment has taken hold, though various melancholic remembrances are also part of the holiday season. Here at Wonders in the Dark, where movie fever is all the rage in December, plans are being made for the rush of late December releases in theaters, including The Post, Molly’s Game, Downsizing, The Phantom Thread and All the Money in the World.  Those in our ranks who take this sort of thing seriously have been struggling to finalize year-end lists, a task invariably complicated by the hankering to cram in some unseen films via online sources.  The traditionalists among us won’t want to miss the opportunity to watch A Christmas Carol (1951), It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) for the sixth hundredth time,  or beyond that the musical Scrooge or those with a subversive streak, Bad Santa or Silent Night Deadly Night.  There’s always the Twilight Zone episode “Night of the Meek” with Art Carney or the Christmas Honeymooners episode with again features Carney with Jackie Gleason.  The options are really endless, if home viewing is prioritized.  We do plan to have our weekly Monday Morning Diary published on Christmas Day, a week from now as we did six or seven years ago when the holiday fell on a Monday.  We certainly want to hear all about what you all got under the tree now!  🙂

Ace writer James Clark continues on with his brilliant film essays, and he has some great stuff coming your way.  The Caldecott Medal Contender series is approaching the twenty mark, and what with the awards not set to announce until February 12th, it is a cinch there will be at least a dozen more to be published.  Part II of the Greatest Television Series Countdown draws closer, though still a good eight weeks away.  The holiday break will give some of the writers a chance to watch some of the series they are covering. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The last time we heard from Sadie, that intrepid negotiator of an alligator, elephant, plane and train, she was busy writing a letter after she had finally met up with her Great Aunt Josephine, the most eccentric of animal lovers in the delightfully raucous Special Delivery.  The very first glimpse of her in the sophomore adventure The Only Fish in the Sea reveals her back in the saddle, as she is wearing her signature helmet, goggles and red scarf as she repairs her bicycle, following a frontispiece page featuring a huffing African-American boy.   Enter, stage left the bicycle-riding Sherman, arrives to inform this Nancy Drew of outdoor escapades that an incorrigible child named “Little Amy Scott” committed an act of familial treachery, by spurning a gift in front of a mortified birthday gathering.  As visualized by master scratchpad illustrator Matthew Cordell, the scene of familial rejection may recall a c omparable one in the “It’s A Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone when a terrified family recoils after an eight year old boy sternly warns relatives in a living room that he will send anyone into the cornfield who doesn’t like what he is doing.  With mother, hand over her mouth, the father exhibiting a “deer in the headlights” look and the rest clearly chagrined this is a gathering of unhappy campers, though Little Amy is calling the shots in this household.  The artistic decision by the author of the Caldecott Medal winning A Sick Day for Amos Magee, Phillip C. Stead and Cordell to enlarge the drama played out in Amy’s home via a thought bubble is inspired as it gives readers quite a bit more of nuance than the singular proclamation Goldfish Are Boring! (more…)

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