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Archive for the ‘Sam on Movies’ Category

how-1

by Sam Juliano

I am leaving behind me fifty years of memory.  Memory…..Who shall say what is real and what is not?  Can I believe my friends all gone when their voices are a glory in my ears?  No.  And I will stand to say no and no again, for they remain a living truth within my mind.  There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone.  You can say go back and have what you like of it…So I can close my eyes on my valley as it was…….-Huw Morgan

The legacy of John Ford’s coal-mining saga, How Green Was My Valley, based on Richard Llewelyn’s novel, is mired in a negative statistic in Oscar history.  It’s is always maligned as the film that beat out the most influential and celebrated film in the history of American cinema – Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane – for the Best Picture prize.  And as such, it is a film that seems to always get the short end of the stick from film historians and some classic films buffs.  Releasing a year after Ford’s masterful The Grapes of Wrath(1940) the film was looked on by skeptics as a glossy Hollywood tearjerker that disavowed important social and political issues in favor of melodrama.  A few modern critics have derided the film’s sentimental story, with one even calling it “a monstrous slurry of tears and coal dust.”  An esteemed colleague takes strong issue with what he calls “phony Welsh accents” and the film’s preponderance of tears.

By and large, though, these negative  opinions have been avalanched in true coal miner fashion by contemporary critics, film historians and audiences who now see How Green Was My Valley as a film about ‘disintegration of family’ and of a culture due in large measure to economic depression, that still evinces its ideological world view that boasts an indominability of the human spirit and a deep nostalgia for the past and of familial bonds and sibling love. (more…)

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a-i-21

by Sam Juliano

The idea behind A.I. was originally conceived by Stanley Kubrick, who subsequently entrusted the proposed project to Steven Spielberg.  When Kubrick died suddenly in 1999, his widow successfully persuaded Spielberg to assume complete artistic control of the film, including the direction.  Set in a future time when progress in robotics poses a conceivable menace to the human species, David (Haley Joel Osment), a robotic boy, is the artificial life form who is capable of experiencing love.  As a prototype, he is given to a couple whose real son is mired in what appears to be an irreversible coma.  After a discordant initiation David and his mother bond, at which point the “real” son miraculously awakens from the coma, rejoins to the family, and tricks David into engaging in dangerous things.  The father concludes that they must return the robotic boy to the manufacturer for destruction, but the mother arranges for his escape via abandonment.  For the duration of the film David seeks to be reunited with his mother, and for a time is joined by “Gigolo Joe,” a robot designed to function as a male prostitute.  David becomes frozen I an the ocean, and millennia later–long after the extinction of the human species–robots of the future rescue him and allow him to reunite with his mother for one day that will last in his mind for eternity.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, fueled by some profound philosophical themes and issues of motherhood, is arguably one of Spielberg’s masterworks, and for this writer it ranks with Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun and E. T. on the short list of the director’s greatest achievements in cinema.  Like the other three, it is extraordinarily moving, and it paints yet again a piercingly provocative view of childhood and of the human condition, tinged with an overwhelming sense of sadness.  The film is based on a short story by Brian Aldiss entitled “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” published in 1969, and it draws considerable influence from Disney’s Pinocchio.  

(more…)

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willy_wonka

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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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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