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Screen cap from National Society of Film Critics Best Picture winner “Lady Bird” directed by Greta Gerwig who was also named best in that category.

by Sam Juliano

The most respected and reliable of all the annual film critics’ groups, the arthouse slanted National Society of Film Critics chose Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird as Best Picture of 2017 and Gerwig as the year’s Best Director over the weekend in voting that also featured wins for Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as Best Actor and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) as Best Actress.  In total, 44 of the 59 NSFC members participated in the vote Saturday. Recent winners of the group’s top prize include Moonlight, Spotlight, Godard’s Goodbye to Language and Inside Llewyn Davis.  The two films that finished close behind Lady Bird were Get Out and The Phantom Thread.  For Best Director Gerwig was closely followed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  In the supporting races the winners were Willem Dafoe for The Florida Project and Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird.  Best Documentary winner was Agnes Varda’s French work Faces Places and the Best Foreign Film (though foreign films can also crossover and win the main prizes as some have done) was the Romanian Graduation.

The always good-for-a-laugh-or two (or twenty) Golden Globes were set to stage on Sunday night, so I’ll reserved any conversation on that subject for the comment section.

A powerful blizzard and single digit temperatures forced school closing in my hometown and in northern New Jersey on Thursday and Friday.

I’ve been furiously moving to see any films I may have missed in theaters over the year by way of the proper channels (DVD, blu ray, on line streaming) and am hoping to Post my Top 20 Films of 2017 on Monday, January 15th at the site. Continue Reading »

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by Sam Juliano

Into the sea, the starfish
casting them back into the living waters
giving them a chance, an opportunity
a choice of life
in the loving arms
the warm embrace
the seas of the father
Spreading the message of the son
the grace of the trinity
living within us
Casting starfish into the sea        -Raymond A Foss

In each and every year the Caldecott Medal Contender series has staged at Wonders in the Dark, there are a few children’s books that for various reasons associated with publisher size and promotional funding, have not been squarely under the radar of those making predictions or compiling their own year-end lists.  Often discoveries are made down the line, especially in the instance of writers or artists having achieved previous critical successes.  Maine-based nature illustrator Jamie Hogan won wide acclaim in 2017 for her monochrome art in the service of Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins, which was named one of the best books of the year by the New York Public Library Board.  A few books later and Hogan has in the view of this writer entered the sacred pantheon of books worthy of Caldecott attention with the quietly powerful and sensory Ana and the Sea Star, released by Tilbury House Publishers.

The most celebrated picture book depicting a young girl and her father spending some time together at a rocky shore location in the Pine Tree State was Robert McCloskey’s Caldecott Honor winning One Morning in Maine published way back in 1952.  Heck, it is probably the most famous book featuring that human dynamic set in any state, though on the surface the story of loose-toothed Sal, who talks to the fish hawks and the loons en route to her Dad to help dig clams along the shore is slight and scene-specific.  Yet what the two-time Caldecott Medal winner does with his slice-of-life drama is to document coming-of-age and familial bonding under the prism of imagination and gently wrought trial and tribulation.  Seemingly the most innocuous situation turns out a be a defining moment in adolescent maturation, one anchored in the symbolism of a lost primary tooth, and one of those indelible moments destined for permanent record in the mind’s scrap-book.  There is an acute literary kinship between McCloskey’s unforgettable sensory immersion and Ana and the Sea Star by R. Lynne Roelfs, a work that similarly places youthful wishes front and center during the most formative years. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

What ultimately foiled Big Anthony in Tomie di Paola’s classic Caldecott Honor book Strega Nona was his failure to notice the story’s benevolent witch blowing three kisses after a magical recitation aimed at ceasing the production of pasta in her magic pot.  The same basic measure of smug overconfidence initially impedes a determined young girl aiming to solve the “forms” in martial arts without the vital tutelage of an experienced teacher.  Unlike the inveterate boaster in the medieval story set in Italy, a young girl stays the proverbial course in a contemporary setting, where mastery follows a baptism under fire.  The unidentified central protagonist in Barbara McClintock’s exquisite The Five Forms needs to thoroughly experience the power of mystical forces before committed will power can harness and humanize undisciplined temperament in achieving consummate success in the martial arts.

After opening end papers featuring mammals who later come alive in the narrative and some attractive brown and beige matching calligraphy, the frontispiece spotlights a young pony-tailed girl wearing a pink coat, one whom in the Barbara McClintock universe affectionately recalls Maria from the charming domestic drama Where’s Mommy?   Armed only with a knapsack and an inquisitive spirit she spots what appears to be a thick, loose-leaf holed scrapbook sitting on top of a blue tin book-drop outside a library.  Young readers previously exposed to Bill Thomson’s wildly popular 2010 wordless picture book Chalk, and the opening scenes of three children on a rainy day finding a bag of colored chalk hanging on the teeth of a toy dinosaur in a playground, may suspect there is magic in the air again, even if the ground rules this time clearing state that this mysterious portfolio can only enter a “good home.”  Taking the bait out intrepid protagonist, having hung up her coat, taken off her boots and laid down her knapsack is busy investigating her surprising find in a room where cuddly stuffed animals, doll house and a jack-in-the-box sit lifelike aside two shelves of books.  McClintock suddenly intrudes with the book’s title, which is the same as this 2017 release, and the challenge has officially been taken and accepted. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

New Year’s Day 2018.  And another one for the record books.  I trust all our readers had a memorable New Year’s Eve affair, even with the single digit temperatures that have complicated any outdoor plans.  One must wonder how the Times Square party people can endure exposure to these frigid numbers for hours.  Here’s to the best year ever over the coming twelve months.  We all sure can use it.

The Caldecott Medal Contender series continues while the Greatest Television Countdown Part 2 looms closer.  Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance have posted their typically superlative essays on a number of intriguing classic and contemporary films.

Lucille, the three boys and I spent our New Year’s Eve down at the Silverball Museum on the ocean boardwalk in Asbury Park playing Medieval Madness, Whitewater, The Twilight Zone, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, Indiana Jones, Theater of Magic, Junk Yard, The Addams Family and many other classic pins! Ha! The girls were off with friends. Continue Reading »

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. Continue Reading »

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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.
Continue Reading »

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.” Continue Reading »