Archive for the ‘author Sam Juliano’ Category


by Sam Juliano

I first met the future Lucille Mancini Juliano in March of 1991, when she volunteered to assist me in directing a third grade play of Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at a time when we both worked at the now razed English Neighborhood School in Fairview, New Jersey.  Now one of the district’s three school principals, the then 28 year-old teacher specialized in the neurologically impaired.  When she heard of my plans to feature students from my third-grade class, she readily came aboard as a stage line prompter, and later doubled as coordinator of scenery and props.  The late veteran instructor Marion D. “Mitzi” Steup made it a three-person creative team, imparting her considerable artistic skills by constructing the sets, with able assistance from ‘gifted and talented’ fifth graders.  It’s been upwards of twenty-five years now, but I am reminded of this adventure to this very day, and have a wonderful video of the production for posterity.  320 people crowded into the two story building’s second floor auditorium on a cool Saturday evening to attend the community event, and some had to squeeze into hallway entrances.  A smoke machine was utilized, an intricate sound system allowed the show’s music to blare, and colored lighting helped set the proper mood.  It was an event wrought with intense enthusiasm and devotion, and even included a contentious episode with the Borough’s Board Secretary, who attempted to cancel the show on the very day it was scheduled. Because of the size of the crowd, and some concern over safety as a consequence of the school’s age (80 years) and a failed state report that concluded with pointed orders to the district to make immediate repairs or face a shut down, the event was seen as chancy.  But after I dispatched Mr. Caufield with an angry eviction notice on the staircase, and advised him to leave or I would “physically” remove him, I was publicly supported by the Board of Education’s then president, Mr. Frank Pizzichillo, who attended the production with bells on.  It was a huge success, and one that is fondly remembered by two now-married young men, Eddie Slodiska and Jason Romano, who played Charlie and Willy Wonka, respectively.  Perhaps most importantly, however, it was the fuel that ignited a romance that led to a July, 1995 wedding and a big family.  And all the credit goes to Roald Dahl.  Or does it? (more…)

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my childhood

by Sam Juliano

 Note:  The review for ‘My Childhood’ was expected from another source, but alas this could not be managed.  The capsule review on display here was written quickly by myself this afternoon to fill the void.

  Scotland’s Bill Douglas, who died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 57, left behind a stark and intense three part autobiographical study of his his early years in Newcraighall, an impoverished mining town outside of Edinburgh.  It wasn’t a difficult proposition for Douglas to re-create the suffocating squalor of the town, as it had changed very little in over forty years.  The first part of the three films, My Childhood, is arguably the most powerfully effective.  Echoing the social deprivation of Dickens and the muddied streets and murky soot-covered houses seen in Bela Tarr, the film’s nihilist underpinnings mirror the latter’s philosophy.  Two neglected and abused young boys, Jamie and his older brother Tommie grow up with their emasculated grandmother in an ancient ruin during the second world war.  The boys’ mother, like Douglas’ own was remanded to an asylum due to a childbirth-related complication.  The boys have different fathers, both of whom appear during this acute character study, one that disavows narrative in favor of a observational detail.  The grandmother despises both.  The film’s austerity is right out of the Bresson playbook, what with the many still captures and the spare and precise use of sound.  There is a pervasive gloom hanging over this woeful hamlet, and the static camera only accentuates the pall.

One could be inclined to describe this kind of minimalist cinema as social realism, but Douglas adherents have revised the term to include the manner in which the director informs his material: “poetic realism.”  There are some striking and indelible images and framing in this trenchant use of monochrome, it is more of a visual “language” than it a tapestry that is more associated with the matters of time and place.  Yet, even with the dearth of a storytelling arc, Jamie’s transformation over the three films is abundantly explicit. Douglas stretches the boundaries of the cinema, by the application of a literary property, in the same way that one can reasonably assert that a literary property has been expanded to embrace the communicative power of the cinema.  Too often the phrase “tone poem” has been misused or over applied, but in Douglas’ trilogy it is aptly framed.  The editing of the films is non-complicated, fully in tune with the way Douglas himself imagined images and events, without stylistic ostentation.  Two scenes that are not at all connected are still run together, with the audience left to fill in the gaps, though the narrative disunity is not difficult to negotiate.  It is not at all a stretch to make claim that the Bill Douglas Trilogy is one of the most personalized works of cinema ever made.  Douglas makes his own rules as he moved forward, conforming only to his own memories, his own perceptions, his own grasp of what in his sorry earlier life was most acutely embedded in his consciousness.   (more…)

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no greater glory

by Sam Juliano

The opening scene of Frank Borgaze’s pre-code era anti-war film No Greater Glory is a battle montage depicting a legion of soldiers, armed with bayonets engaging in combat.  A man dressed in civilian clothes suddenly declares that war is a useless exercise and that he will fight no longer.  The episode, taken from Lewis Milestone’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front, is a powerful one, and it wholly encapsulates the theme of Borzage’s film.  The subsequent scene of a teacher reading the patriotic riot act to his students -which recalls both the Milestone and a much later German film The Bridge- illustrates the role of adults as instigators, prime motivators in the horrors that were to claim the lives of thousands of innocent European school children in the name of a foolhardy and unattainable status of patriotic glorification.  Of course No Greater Glory like its celebrated predecessor offers up adults as symbols in the  madness populated by kids who realize the horror of their aggression far too late.  It is rather curious that the classic children’s novel The Paul Street Boys, by Ferenc Molnarupon which No Greater Glory is based, was written seven years before the start of the First World War, though it is a generally known fact that the society of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was largely militaristic.  Molnar wrote the famed Liliom and other acclaimed works that were adapted for the stage and cinema before fleeing to the United States in 1939 at the time anti-Semitism was growing in his country.  The screenwriter of No Greater Glory was another Jew that took up residence stateside.   As Borzage was a fervent anti-war advocate, he was a huge fan of both the aforementioned Western Front, released four years earlier and the 1925 silent classic The Big Parade, of which are powerful statements of disenchantment and lost innocence.

The film depicts two groups of boys who engage in a domestic feud over a vacant lumber yard, which serves as their private playground.  The Paul Street Boys are the younger combatants, and they feign having a military organization.  The youngest and seemingly frailest boy is named Nemecsak.  He’s enthusiastic, loyal and determined to rise from  his capacity as the sole “private” among a fraternity of officers.  A unanimous vote confirms the election of Boka as President, but his closest friend Gereb enviously turns traitor, an act that paves the way for the old group -the Red Shirts’- commander Feri Ats to seize the Paul Street Boys’ flag.  The fearless Nemecsak returns later in the evening to recapture the flag but falls out of a tree during a Red Shirts’ assembly.  The boy remains firm and defiant -qualities that impress Feri Ats- but punishment in the form of a dunking is meted out.  This seemingly innocuous castigation later has fateful consequences.  In any event the boy’s resilience greatly impresses Feri Ats, who sets the boy free with a complete measure of obeisance.  The Paul Street Boys are equally moved by Nemecsak’s valiance and award him an officer’s cap at the same time they disbar Gerab for his treachery.  Shortly thereafter Feri Ata and Boka come to agreement on a full-scale brawl, with possession of the Paul Street Boys flag to determine the winner.  Gereb’s father arrives at the lot, and insists on an explanation for his son’s ejection from the group.  Despite Gereb’s treason, Nemecsak stands by his friend, keeping the truth hidden.  Gereb rejoins the group and volunteers to take up position on the front line. (more…)

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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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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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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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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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