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Small change

by Sam Juliano

When movie fans are asked to identify the prime proponents of the cinema of childhood the names of Steven Spielberg and Francois Truffaut invariably dominate the discussion.  In the case of the former the label seems more than justified all things considered, but of the Frenchman Truffaut’s twenty-one films only three could reasonably be framed as as films dealing with and populated by kids.  The reason for the misrepresentation is undoubtedly the fact that the New Wave master’s debut feature, Les Quatre Cents Coup (The 400 Blows) is one of the celebrated and influential films of all-time, and the one most often named as the ultimate work on adolescent alienation.  To be sure Truffaut did chronicle the aging process of his Antoine Doniel character from that film in a series of films like Bed and Board and The Soft Skin, but at that point the youthful parameter had expired.  In 1969 he again explored the true-life story of a deaf and dumb boy raised in the outdoors –The Wild Child- and then  seven years later he wrote and directed what was to be his final foray into the pains and wonders of childhood with his magical Small Change (L’Argent de Poche).  The film is unquestionably the purest manifestation of his part-time childhood preoccupation, and more than any other single film in this countdown it delineates the essence of the subject.  The film’s title was actually suggested by Spielberg, who noted at the time there was another American film called Pocket Money, which of course is the literal translation from the French.

In Small Change Truffaut understands that there is no sense of time continuity in the perception of a child, with the events of one day having no impact or resonance on what happens the next.  It is the best possible excuse for making an episodic film, though like any other narrative film everything must be finely orchestrated and timed.  With kids understanding what is largely at hand the director employs the acute style of the vignette to best transcribe his central themes.  The film is set in the town of Thiers in southern France, and is shot in a naturalistic style with a lot of nonprofessional child actors.  There is wonder, sexual awakening, anarchy, mischief and hidden abuse running through these irresistible chapters driven by kids who exhibit varying measures of resourcefulness, resilience and precocious behavior.  Some of the early classroom scenes recall The 400 Blows, but Small Change is sunnier and infinitely more hopeful, even with the tragic circumstances surrounding one boy’s story.  Truffaut repeatedly implies that kids will always rise to the occasion, never accepting defeat, and always landing on their feet.  This last assertion is visualized in the most literal sense in what is surely the film’s most extraordinary sequence: a toddler  of about two years old is left alone in the apartment after his mother leaves to frantically search for a missing wallet.  Unattended, the boy gleefully opens and empties the contents of food packets that were just purchased by the mom, creating a mess of epic proportions.  He then picks up the cat, and carries it to an open window about five stories high.  It falls to the safety of a ledge, and to the horror of some people who have gathered below the boy embarks on a perilous venture to rescue the animal.  Inevitably, the infant falls to a nearly certain death, but his flyweight, the angle of the fall and the cushioned shrubbery happily conspire for a different resolution.  The mother arrives shortly thereafter, quickly surveys the laughing boy and the lofty window and faints to the ground. (more…)

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careful1_

by Sam Juliano

Careful, He Might Hear You, released in 1983, followed in the footsteps of some exceedingly well-regarded late 70’s films like My Brilliant Career, Gallipoli and Breaker Morant, all of which initiated what is now framed as the Australian New Wave.  Based on the novel of the same title by Sumner Locke Elliot the film is set in Depression-era Sydney, and centers around “T.S.,” a six year-old boy, who lost his mother while she gave birth to him.   The two initials were given to the boy by the mother during her pregnancy to denote was was apparently a post script to her tempestuous life.  A bitter custody battle ensues between an asthmatic aunt and her poor Labor party politician husband who have raised the boy since birth in a comparatively impoverished section of the city- and the wealthy but unstable aunt who returns from England, and deciding she can offer the boy much more than her sister can.  Few Australian films before or since have offered up such unabashed, naked emotions on a melodramatic stage, nor have left viewers so shattered by narrative events that are dictated by class structure, misinterpretation and tragedy.

The novel was a big hit in the US, Britain and Germany, but in Elliot’s then-native Australia it sold literally just a handful of copies, because of the country’s intolerance for gay writers of the early 60’s.  Sumner moved to New York City in 1948, where he remained until his death of colon cancer at the age of 74.  It was Sumner’s first and most critically praised novel in a successful writing career, and it largely autobiographical, relating the events of his own childhood, starting with the corresponding death in childhood of his mother, who was at the time a famous writer herself.  Elliot’s deadbeat father, Logan, was the same irresponsible alcoholic he is portrayed as in the book, though the film paints him more sympathetically.  Both sisters refer to the dead mother as “Dear one,” and are similarly headstrong, but for the most part are studies in contrast.  Lila can’t offer the boy anything remotely extravagant, but he is very happy living with her and her husband George in a young life that is uncomplicated and sufficiently affectionate.  To be sure the childless couple demonstrate little patience, and harshly overact to the boy’s unintentional foul ups connected to the sparsity of basic domestic items.  Still, they are fiercely protective of the boy, and doggedly defend what they see as their inherent right to maintain custody.  Vanessa, obviously spoiled, neurotic and a prime purveyor of manipulative strategies is rich, refined and beautiful, and once had an affair with the boy’s father.  A surprise visit by Logan at her palatial estate on the other side of the harbor midway through the film reveals the extent of their past  and the speaks of the present that invariably leads to a dead-end street. (more…)

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ordinarypeople1

by Sam Juliano

Note:  The following is a transcript of an extended conversation I had back in the fall of 2002 within the student union building at Montclair State University with a good friend, and a fellow movie fan, English literature graduate student Bill Riley.  The section of the talk printed here is the one dealing with Robert Redford’s 1980 award winner ‘Ordinary People.’

Sam:  Bill, have you ever found it more than a little curious that the 1980 Best Picture Oscar winner Ordinary People has suffered such an extensive backlash with critics and movie goers since it won, with some even going so far as to assert that it isn’t even a good film?!

Bill: Sam, I have in fact.  What makes it even more difficult to fathom is that the film won far more than the Oscar –  I recall it copped the Best Picture prize from the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle and similar citations from other groups nationwide and abroad.

Sam: So basically, most critics and moviegoers -or at least a good number of them- thought Ordinary People was the best American film of that year.

Bill: Pretty much so, I’d reckon.  Backlash is a potent force in arts competitions, and resounding success will always bring on more scrutiny and the Monday morning quarterbacking.  Success breeds it.  I’d say backlash includes the heightened voices of the devil’s advocates, naysayers and those who are thinking in terms of “I told you so.”  Those are the ones likely to admonish those who commit the mortal sin of overrating a motion picture.  (snickers)

Sam:  I know just what you mean Bill.  Oh it won the Oscar for Best Picture, so it has to be Oscar bait, unworthy or just plain forgettable.  Heck, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Godfather, On the Waterfront, Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia won Best Picture Oscars too.  Does it make them overrated or undeserving?  Hmmm.

Bill:  Yeah, and my beloved Amadeus and The Last Emperor won Best Picture as well.

Sam:  I never disputed that the Oscars are a joke for all sorts of reasons.  Many voters don’t see all the films, studio money often buys nominations, and the group is generally myopic to recognizing foreign language films in the major categories.  Timing means more than artistry three-quarters of the time, and the time between the nominations and the actual awards can be framed as a shameless rat race.  Yet, they do make some good choices if for no other reason than the odds are on their side.  Every awards organization gets it right some of the time.  I’d like to say that I continue to believe that Ordinary People’s reputation was negatively impacted because of its Best Picture win.  The reason is because it won over Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, a film that most think was superior.  Some, like Roger Ebert, named it the best film of the 1980’s, and those in that camp will always take Oscar to task for snubbing it. (more…)

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pm-c-3

by Sam Juliano

The road picture genre is one that’s been so plentifully visited through the years that one would have little disputation giving it an independent classification.  Some of the American cinema’s most celebrated characters have traveled across states, trying to evade capture, embarking on various escapades or just geographically fueling their unrest.  Joan Graham and Eddie Taylor, Tom Joad, Clyde Barrow, Kit Carruthers, Keechie and Bowie and recently Woody Grant have made their marks on the landscape offering up their blood, sweat and tears, and in some instances their lives to achieve a subversive brand of the American Dream.  Of course the Americans don’t remotely hold a monopoly on the stamp, and cinephiles will fondly recall accomplished works such as La Strada, Alice in the Cities, The Vanishing, Wages of Fear, Alice in the Cities and The Trip among others that explore the form with special attention to the sociological, psychological and political elements that fuel the narratives.  It is no wonder that a great many of the films that fall into this category are largely about crime, as after all criminals on the run are apt to travel long distances for obvious reasons, but the elements of adventure and transience are the initial or prime proclivity of many road movie protagonists.  Of course there are some celebrated road trips made in the recesses of dreams in  fantastical locations, with none more famous than the one that featured the yellow brick road and an emerald palace.  What unites all road pictures is the insatiable thirst of its characters to leave behind, however temporary, what is invariably seen as a dead end street, and the need to act on some of their hankerings to attain either material or spiritual benefit.  The results are a mixed lot.

The acclaimed auteur Peter Bogdonovich followed up on two monster hits in the early 1970s- his magisterial classic The Last Picture Show, and a screwball comedy, What’s Up Doc?  The latter was a box-office smash, while the former was greeted by some of the best reviews and American film had received in years, and secured a host of awards and eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture.  His third project was actually recommended to him by the studio, but the director initially balked.  He later changed his mind largely at the urgings of his former wife Polly Platt, but also because of his fondness of period films and his confidence in the screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who was brought in to adapt Joe David Brown’s novel “Addie Pray.”  The renowned cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs was given the assignment, and of course Pratt herself explored locations, for what was to be arresting art direction.  The film was to be titled Paper Moon. (more…)

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sounder 1

by Sam Juliano

William H. Armstrong’s Sounder won the 1970 Newbery Medal and was in short order adapted for the screen.  The story focused on African-American sharecroppers living and working in 1933 Louisiana at the height of the Great Depression, and was helmed by the former blacklisted director Martin Ritt, whose specialty was intimate, homespun southern dramas, of which Hud (1963) was the most celebrated.  Though there are some significant differences between the novel and the film, most of what is presented on screen is faithful to the source material.

The Morgans – Nathan, Rebecca and the children David Lee, Earl and Josie May are barely scraping by as sharecroppers for an uncompromising store owner, Mr. Perkins, who also owns the shanty and the land they inhabit.  As the film’s credits unfold, the father and oldest son hunt for coon.  The motivation isn’t recreational indulgence, but to have that rarest of commodities – meat on the table.  After a chase through the woods, assisted by the family’s beloved mixed breed coon hound, Sounder.  The father misses his target, but comes home to an understanding wife who still ladles out soup, shrugging off yet another episode of hunting futility.  Nathan is bitter that the family’s rigorous labor is accomplished solely to make the smug Perkins richer, while they all flirt with starvation.  The next morning Rebecca finds a ham and some sausage in the kitchen, which she promptly prepares, asking no questions.  The origin of the culinary windfall is painfully clear, but the delighted family indulge.  Rebecca asks David where he was the previous night, and the father, in the tradition of Jean Valjean answers “I did what I had to do.”

David attends school, and is relegated to the back of the classroom with other black children.  He later brings his siblings along for a visit to the kindly Mrs. Rita Boatwright, a laundry customer of Rebecca, who works overtime to supplement the family’s meager income.  Compassionate and without a prejudicial bone in her body, Mrs. Boatwright lends David her copy of The Three Musketeers, recommending that they discuss it when he is done.  The kids later gleefully witness their father pitch a winning baseball game.  Then disaster strikes when Nathan is arrested and handcuffed by Sheriff Young and his deputy for stealing the ham from a neighbor.  Sounder breaks loose from David’s hold and runs after the sheriff’s truck, as the deputy takes aim with his shotgun.  Just as he shoots, Nathan interferes by jerking his leg to prevent a fatal shot.  Sounder is bloodied and limps off into the woods as David tries to follow.  He eventually loses the pursuit.  Rebecca leaves to walk many miles to see her husband in the jail, but is told by the Sheriff that black woman are forbidden to visit their jailed husbands.   She stops by the general store to exchange walnuts for the ingredients to bake a cake where Perkins reprimands her for her husband’s bout with the law, telling her it made him look bad.  He tells Rebecca that her and her family must do the cropping on their own if Nathan is not released by the spring, and Rebecca agrees with some veiled sarcasm about their obligations to Perkins. (more…)

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empire 4

empire of the sun

by Sam Juliano

Huna blentyn ar fy mynwes
Clyd a chynnes ydyw hon;
Breichiau mam sy’n dynn amdanat,
Cariad mam sy dan fy mron;
Ni cha’ dim amharu’th gyntun,
Ni wna undyn â thi gam;
Huna’n dawel, annwyl blentyn,
Huna’n fwyn ar fron dy fam.

-Verse #1, “Suo Gan”, Wales, circa 1800

The celebrated critic Andrew Sarris, who previously had little good to say about Steven Spielberg, reversed himself in a now famous assessment of 1987’s Empire of the Sun, which the scribe rapturously proclaimed the best film of the year:  “I was stirred and moved on a scale I had forgotten existed.  The film is a fusion of kinesthetic energy with literary sensibility, pulse-pounding adventure with exquisitely delicate sensitivity.”

This glorious epic of heroism and loss of innocence is my personal favorite of all Spielberg’s films and one of the greatest pictures of the 80′s.  I well remember going on a tangent back in those days, seeing the film over and over in theaters and securing permission from my district’s Board of Education for a school field trip for seventh graders. Christian Bale’s arresting performance may still be his finest ever, the use of the Welsh hymn ‘Suo Gan’ still brings goosebumps, and Allen Daviau’s breathtaking cinematography indelibly orchestrates Spielberg’s rapturous images. The film had to compete that same year -with John Boorman’s masterpiece Hope and Glory, which broached much of the same subject matter and same period, and it was bumped for the big nomination at Oscar time in favor of the Boorman’s work, though the National Board of Review handed over their Best Picture and Best Director prizes to the film and Spielberg.

Based on the autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun revolves around the early teenage years of  a young English boy named Jamie Graham, who is living in China with his wealthy parents in the privileged Shanghai International Settlement.  The father is a British diplomat, and the young boy is hopelessly spoiled and afflicted with an entitlement malady.  He even tells the family’s Chinese maid that she ‘must do as she is told’ after she initially objects to him eating cookies before bedtime in their lavish, sprawling home, which showcases manicured landscaping and an in ground swimming pool.  While the boy can’t be held to task by the implications of racism in his precocious declaration -his behavior is after all a product of the socially condescending era he was reared in – his parents apparently balk at studious intervention at all turns, no doubt because the servants are seen as lower class, and thereby subject to obedience.  Ballard, who was exceedingly pleased with the film -he made a cameo in the costume party segment- endured the events depicted in the film, which of course was based on his writing. (more…)

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1776

by Sam Juliano

Note:  This review,  first published at WitD on July 5, 2009 is re-printed today to honor and acknowledge the 4th of July holiday stateside.  It has been substantially revised:

Back in 1972, upon the release of the film version of 1776 Vincent Canby opined: “The music is resolutely unmemorable.  The lyrics sound as if they’d been written by someone high on root beer, and the book is familiar history, compressed here, stretched there – that has been gagged up and paced to Broadway’s not inspiring standards.  Yet Peter H. Hunt’s screen version of 1776, a musical play I somehow didn’t see during its three-year Broadway run, insists on being so entertaining and, at times, even moving, that you might as well stop resisting it.  This reaction, I suspect, represents a clear triumph of emotional associations over material.”  Others, like Rex Reed were not so hospitable, likening the film and the show it was based on as “a history lesson for the mentally retarded.”  The roll-out for the movie was most extravagant as it premiered at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall near the very end of that cultural landmark’s status as a movie house, before its advent as an exclusive concert venue.  (As a 17 year-old I saw the film during its run here, and vividly remember being assaulted by a Bob Dylan-The Kinks-John Lennon loving friend who accompanied me to the screening with a few others, and who vociferously objected to some of the film’s cornball song lyrics, telling me at the end of the film: “You’re dead Juliano!).

1776 is a musical treatment of our nation’s defining historical coda, and its two-fold aim is to inform its high-profile independence-seeking adherents, while simultaneously chronicling the electrifying drama that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the numerous obstacles that preceded it.  The famed document of course, penned by Thomas Jefferson for the Second Continental Congress is one of the world’s treasures, and the wrangling that both and inspired and compromised it is the real subject of Stone’s theatrical work.  Back in the 70’s before the artistic rehearsal that now has plays regularly being based on films, it was fashionable for critics and jaded audiences to dismiss film adaptations of Broadway as some sort of violation of form.  Yet, while there can be no doubt that the theatrical intimacy that characterized many stage works could never be rendered full justice on film without the regular cry of staginess, there can likewise be little question that film can allow for the “opening up” that can eliminate the claustrophobia evident in drama mainly played out in meeting halls.  Such is certainly the case with 1776, a project that literally calls out for alluring Colonial era settings to compliment the defining garb of the period.  Director Hunt makes fine, if modest use of ornate gardens, town squares and the exterior environs of Independence Hall, while not losing focus of the show’s prime focus, which of course is the drive to create a new nation.  Hunt provides some attractive saturated fantasy sequences in which John and Abigail Adams meet and sing of their eternal love and familial commitments, and a delightfully cornball scene in which Ben Franklin and John Adams join Martha Jefferson for a dance in her garden as she sings her love for Tom. (“He plays the Violin.”)  Harry Stadling’s widescreen cinematography makes excellent use of sepia-tone filters and muted color as a deft replication of time and place, yet there is also a sweeping visual panorama that makes full use of the rectangular compositions, and the placement of characters within a frame. (more…)

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