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. Continue Reading »


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. Continue Reading »



© 2015 by James Clark

 Most crime stories committed to film are suffused with satisfaction that they’ll give the audience technology-based thrills along lines of impressive actors, “Keeping them on the edge of their seats” about how it all will end. They might also factor into the market prediction their having scared the shit out of hard-pressed contemporaries apropos of society becoming an ever more vicious battlefield. What else could an ambitious filmmaker in the “action” field ask for?

If we keep our eyes wide open while watching Michael Mann’s crime story, Collateral (2004), we might surprise ourselves that the abovementioned formula admits of being surpassed a million times over. However, not only the practitioners lend themselves to that dead weight of old timey fun, but also the audience. Departures on the screen from lazy fun can, in the buttery hands of the popcorn inactivists, be readily fixed as akin to Superbowl ads and attributed to the dime-a-dozen charms of movie stars. Our account of the uniqueness of such a film as we have in our face right now depends upon those few viewers who can take to heart its voluminous concentration upon registers of displacement and distress far beyond anything mainstream experience provides. So while Mann would be quite happy to bank the funds coming from customers who twist his work beyond recognition (the DVD supplement fascinatingly contributing to the confusion)—I recall overhearing a viewer in an art museum getting clear that the painting in front of him was on the order of “Untilted”—there is about his enterprise a clandestine range of rewards generously out there for those whose assimilative energies have not been beaten down. Continue Reading »


By Brian E. Wilson

Ah, nostalgia.

After offering to write this review of Rob Reiner’s nostalgic Stephen King adaptation, set in 1959, I felt a sudden wave of nostalgia myself.  Memories of catching this funny, profane, surprisingly moving gem in August 1986 came flooding back to me.  The movie, about four misfit 12-year-olds (all with distant and/or neglectful fathers) forming a temporary bond as they travel by foot to see their first real dead body (an older boy struck by a train), set itself apart that summer.  I ended up watching it several times at the theater over the next few months, but would not see it again until I recently revisited the movie.  Although I was heading into my senior year of college at the time of its release, Stand by Me still spoke to me as I struggled with the notion of wanting to be a writer (just like the film’s lead character Gordie, beautifully played by Wil Wheaton as a boy, and Richard Dreyfuss as a reminiscing adult called simply “The Writer”).

Taut, economically directed by Reiner (I forgot that the film is only 88 minutes long), the film works on so many levels:  as a rollicking yet tear-jerking vehicle for its young stars, as a sensitive if troubling coming of age story, and as a successful big screen treatment of a Stephen King novella called “The Body.”  The modestly budgeted film not only became one of my favorite movies of 1986, but a sizable hit, and one that helped Ben E. King’s gorgeous title song (co-written by the singer, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller) return to the Billboard Top Ten one more time.  (Do yourself a favor, and look at the wonderful video with an effervescent Ben E. King doing some classic dance moves with stars Wheaton and River Phoenix on YouTube.)  Side note:  the trivia hound in me must note that the movie is set in 1959, but the tune didn’t come out until 1961–but hey, why quibble, when a song is this good and so appropriate thematically?

Before I revisited the movie (for the first time in around 28 years), I asked myself “will this film hold up?”  I am happy to report that it does. Continue Reading »



by J.D. Lafrance

Peter Weir is a filmmaker fascinated by outsider protagonists thrust into strange environments that they must navigate, be it an Australian journalist in 1965 Jakarta (The Year of Living Dangerously) or a veteran Philadelphia cop hiding out in Amish country (Witness) or a headstrong inventor that moves his family from the United States to the jungles of Central America (The Mosquito Coast). Dead Poets Society (1989) continues this thematic preoccupation with a shy student spending his senior year of high school at a conservative all-boys prep boarding school in the 1950s where he falls in with a tight-knit group of colorful students and is in turn taught by the new English teacher whose unconventional methods are alien to the traditional ways of the school.

Right from the opening credits, Weir immerses us in the stuffy, authoritative atmosphere of Welton Academy where its students literally carry its ideals a.k.a. the Four Pillars (tradition, honor, discipline, excellence) on banners into chapel with all the pomp and circumstance befitting such an esteemed institution. Like new student Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), we are immersed in this foreign world and watch as he tries to adapt to and make sense of it all. He starts off as an inexperienced blank slate for Neil Parry (Robert Sean Leonard), the artistically-inclined student (despite his strict father’s wishes), and his friends – Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), the strictly-by-the-book type, Gerard Pitts (James Waterston), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), the romantic, and Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), the rebel who’s up for anything – to imprint upon. They even have their own version of the Four Pillars: travesty, horror, decadence, and excrement.

Their first class with Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) is a memorable one as he takes them out of the classroom and into the hall. He quotes Walt Whitman, evokes the phrase carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) and gets them to look at old photographs of students in the trophy case to give an indication of their own mortality and to inspire them to also seize the day. For a brief but pivotal spell, Keating gets his students to think about English literature in a different way than they are normally accustomed to and this starts with having them rip out the introduction to their textbook that posits poetry should be tracked like a graph with its two axises being the poem’s perfection rated against its importance, which then determines its greatness. Through humor, Keating exposes the absurdity of applying a mathematical formula to art. He forces his students to think about poetry differently through the shock tactic of tearing out pages of the book thereby tearing down their pre-conceived notions of how poetry should be studied. Continue Reading »


by Sam Juliano

The upcoming week has been diagnosed as a real scorcher with temperatures expected in the 90’s, but the previous seven day span was marginally more tolerable.  As always it seems for most that the summer is moving along as a brisk pace, and the month of August lies on the horizon.  Many in our fraternity are away or are close to vacation departure.  I am myself engaged in the annual summer school program, which is now halfway complete.  Friday, August 7th will be the last day.

I have uncharacteristically curtailed theater movie viewings this summer for two reasons:  First off, the quality of the releases is disappointing (though summer is traditionally the weakest time of the year cinematic for films) and secondly I have taken on too heavy a burden for the Childhood/Adolescent Films Countdown that has caused a problem with setting aside time to write.  Just this coming week for example I have reviews due up for three successive days (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) will with plenty more in the coming weeks.  While I was happy to take on some films I love, I simply went overboard and am now paying the price.  It is virtually unheard of for Lucille and I to skip a Saturday night out.  The original plans as per Friday were to trek up to Joey’s in Hewitt to see one of our favorites musicians again, but my responsibilities interfered.  Ah well.

The countdown is moving along quite nicely with solid numbers and decent support.  As always the quality of the presentations has been first-rate, and the diversity of the choices as voted on by many impassioned film buffs has made for an enthralling show. Continue Reading »

ponette 2

By Dean Treadway

Many movies in this countdown deal with children confronted with the horrors of humanity–wartime, racism, poverty, crime. Yet, in its own quiet way, Jacques Doillon’s diminutive Ponette is among the most powerful of them all, simply because it gets the details of childhood correct. It also never shirks away from the toughest images of abject grief. One should be warned: it’s pretty nigh impossible not to view this movie through a sheen of constantly falling tears. Victoire Thivisol, in the title role, was only four years old when the film was shot, and this must be regarded as a miracle. It’s tempting to read up on how Doillon actually elicited this highly emotional work from such a young soul, but to do so might spoil our impressions of Thivisol as a performer (she would take the 1996 top prize at the Venice Film Festival–as far as I know, the youngest actor to ever win any sort of major award). And this is deserved: by any measure, her Ponette is unforgettable.

The film is exceedingly, wonderfully simple. With a tiny cast on her forearm, Ponette is the survivor of a car crash that took her mother’s life. As the film begins, her father (Xavier Beauvois) is comforting her in her hospital bed, and getting ready to drive her back to a boarding school. He expresses anger at his deceased wife–one senses that their relationship was on the skids anyway–while Ponette is still unable to accept that her mother is gone forever. As a parting show of love, she gives her daddy her teddy bear to keep, and he gives her his watch, which she sweetly keeps on her wrist throughout the picture. Doillon then follows this girl, with his camera wisely never lifting above her eyeline, as she struggles to come to terms with her loss.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once broke down the approach of death into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. One can see each of these stages illustrated here in Ponette’s journey, too, never with a heavy hand and in very much the same order. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes have her on the playground with her classmates, navigating this process. The film is filled with talk of God and Jesus, and Heaven–both the adults and the kids indulge in this–and we get the sense that Ponette is alternately comforted, confused and infuriated by some of this stuff (at one point, she chides a teacher for feeding her lies). One bossy girl sends Ponette on a playground obstacle course where the ground is a lava pit of Hell, and where there are only scattered islands of safety to which to jump. Her nominal “boyfriend” Mathias listens as she expresses her mind-twisting sadness, and then he kisses her cheek, comforting her in a scene of such aching intimacy that we’re both amused and relieved when he decides to give her his most prized possession: a Batman toy. “You’re nutty, but nice,” he says. All of this dovetails in a superb scene where Mathias and Carla decide to give Ponette one final test, exiling her to a trash bin for five minutes, to replicate the feeling of death and to strengthen her bravery. Just when we think the film is being unimaginably cruel, her friends find pity for the weeping Ponette and rescue her, excitedly telling her she’s passed muster (and Doillon even finds it possible to wring some laughs from the situation). Continue Reading »


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