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by Sam Juliano

There is a fresh spontaneity present throughout the gay-themed romance Beautiful Thing that leaves the viewer fully exhilarated.  There is a certain sense of triumph when the two lovers are fully outed (one recalls many similarities to the Swedish lesbian drama Show Me Love - directed by Lukas Moodyson – that opened two years later) and have finally built up support and acceptance among those who were originally hostile to such a proposition.  To be sure, the unforgettable final scene of the British film, when the two teenagers lovingly slow-dance in the courtyard of their council flats to Mama Cass Elliot’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me”  as the one boy’s feisty mom defiantly cavorts alongside them, provokes as much shock as bliss among the on-lookers.  But the fact that some have accepted what was once unconscionable in these working class, housing project environs provides the film with its own silver lining, while major changes lie on the horizon.

Beautiful Thing stands apart from other gay romances because it depicts the budding relationship as an outgrowth of the same yearnings that define heterosexual love.  There are the usual hurdles to negotiate, and guilt, embarrassment and self-loathing are all experienced before true love conquers all.  Hattie McDonald, directing an intelligent script written by Jonathan Harvey from his long-running play demonstrates remarkable emotional restraint in documenting how two teenage boys who reside next door to each other in a South East London housing project come face to face with their emerging homosexuality.  In fact the film essentially plays out largely  in three connecting apartments which house the characters who display their various difficulties in coping with their siblings, acceptance in school and dysfunctional self-identity. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?  That she was beautiful.  And brilliant.  That she loved Mozart and Bach.  And the Beatles.  And me.  Once, when she specifically lumped me with those musical types, I asked her what the order was, and she replied, smiling, “Alphabetical.”  At the time I smiled too.

Thus begins the novella that took the country by storm in 1970, leaving some macho men blubbering and enhancing the stock of tissue companies everywhere.  The year’s #1 bestseller with five-and-a-half million copies sold was a debut work written by a Yale graduate named Erich Segal.  People read it in the waiting rooms of doctor’s offices, on the buses and subways, and even in some schools.  In short order it became a pop-culture phenomenon.  I first encountered it at age 16, choosing it from a reading list in my sophomore English class.  My teacher, Patrick J. Shelley, who is now retired and living in Connecticut, was one of the coolest educators I’ve ever had the fortune of connecting with.  Our semester grade was determined by how many pages we read from an extensive reading list that included some choices that most teachers wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.  The list included stuff like Portnoy’s Complaint, Mickey Spillane, the Mack Bolan “Executioner” series, and even The Godfather, which published in 1969.  One of the hot topics that school year was the infamous “Page 28″ which graphically described Sonny Corleone’s tryst.

In order to get full credit for the books you read you had to pass an “interview” with Shelley at his desk.  To this day I remember some of the questions he threw out at me to confirm I had read Love Story.  One was to identify the actual focus of Oliver’s attention when he watched Jennifer Cavilleri study (her legs), another, what Oliver called his father (sonavabitch) and still what Jennifer said to Oliver after he refused to pick up the phone to speak to his father (“You are a heartless bastard.”)  At the time we were excited to read curse words in books we read for class, but years later it is easy enough to see that the populist Segal was hopelessly coy, and that Love Story as a novel is rather shameless.   (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The premiere of one of the world’s most popular operas, Madama Butterfly, was staged at Milan’s La Scala on February 17, 1904.  It was an unmitigated diaster, despite the employment of first-rate singers and technical craftsmen.  At the opera’s conclusion it was reported there was a stone silence that yielded to cat calls and boos, and even screams of “La Boheme again, we’ve heard that already! Give us something new!” and derision over Cio Cio San’s pregnant appearance after her kimono billowed in front of her.  After the fiasco, a furious but undaunted composer Giacomo Puccini -who had barely survived a car accident months before, told friends: “It is I who am right.  It is the finest opera I’ve ever written.  You must have been dismayed at the vile remarks of an envious press.  But never fear!  Madama Butterfly is full of life and truth, and soon she will rise from the dead.  I say it, and stick to it, with unwavering conviction.”  The composer made cuts and divided the second act in two before the “second premiere” three months later proved a sensation.  It was later speculated that the initial debacle was orchestrated by jealous rivals who stacked the audience to do some mischief.

It is generally thought that the literary origin of Madama Butterfly dates back to 1887, when a Parisian writer named Pierre Loti published a semi-autobiographical novel titled Madame Chrysantheme, which concerns a temporary union between a French naval officer and the title character, who is a geisha.  The work was enormously popular and was made into an equally successful opera by Andre Messager in 1893.  Five years later, John Luther Long’s story “Madama Butterfly” appeared in the American Century Magazine.  Long’s sister had lived in Nagasaki, and was able to furnish her brother with some anecdotes and authentic details.  Hence, Long made some adjustments to Loti’s original story, adding his sister’s tale of an abandoned geisha, thereby transforming the maudlin trappings into a far more emotionally potent story of tragic realism.  Pierre was turned into B. F. Pinkerton, a heartless opportunist who sets in motion unconscionable heartbreak when he abandons his unsuspecting geisha lover.   Madame Chrysantheme is changed into Cho-Cho-San, an innocent and trusting child-bride who meets her doom after the poisonous one-two-punch of desertion and infidelity are revealed a few years after she gives birth.  The work was a worldwide sensation, and after numerous offers Long collaborated with the American playwright David Belasco to create a one-act dramatic adaptation that essentially commences after Act 2 has begun, at the point when Pinkerton has left Japan. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

No other romance in the culture has been depicted on stage or screen more often that of the star crossed lovers in Shakespeare’s 1591 Romeo and Juliet.  The Bard’s play, which probably vies as his most popular with his later masterpiece  Hamlet, was in turn based on the Italian verse tale The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562 and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567.  At least 27 operas have been based on Romeo and Juliet.  The earliest, Romeo und Julie in 1776, a singspiel by Georg Benda, omits much of the action and most of its characters, and concludes on a happy note.  The most celebrated is Gounod’s 1867 Romeo et Juliette, a French work with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michael Carre that was an unqualified critical hit when it first opened, and is still frequently revived today, even at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and other world famous houses.  Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto work I Capuleti e i Montecchi is also revived on occasion, but has been unfavorably assessed by some because of its perceived liberties with Shakespeare.  The charge isn’t altogether fair, as Bellini and his librettist Felice Romani worked mostly from Italian sources.  Hector Berlioz’ towering “symphonie dramatique” Romeo et Juliette, a choral and orchestral work in three parts for mixed voices, and Tchaikovsky’s ravishing Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet, featuring one of classical music’s most beautiful melodies (the “love theme”) are other notable compositions that adapt Shakespeare.

The eternal fascination with these characters has spilled over into musical theatre, jazz and ballet, with the most famous by far West Side Story with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Made into the famed 1961 film version that won ten Academy Awards, it is one of the most popular works of the twentieth-century in any form.  The stage work and subsequent film of Rogers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific and the films Sayonara and Elvira Madigan are thematically connected as well.  One of the most popular and performed ballets is Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, written in 1935.  It is speculated by many that Romeo and Juliet is the most filmed play of all time (Franco Zeffirelli’s sublime 1968 version for varying reasons is the most famous) and even the word “Romeo” is synonymous with male lover in the culture. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Ghost is a trap for snobs.  A big 1990 Hollywood release with marketable stars normally starts off with a strike against it, and the supernatural premise of featuring a man being murdered, returning as a ghost, and then watching invisibly over his lover was certain to have some critics out impersonating ghostbusters.  And despite a majority of favorable notices, there remains to this day some who deride this popular comic fantasy with John Simon-styled venom, dismissing it as trite, sophomoric, and cloyingly sentimental.  But square can be beautiful too, and Ghost has gloriously survived the lambasting from the intelligentsia to stand today as a romantic favorite among audiences who largely find bliss in all shapes and varieties in re-visitations.   The film was the second biggest grosser worldwide in its release year, trailing only Home Alone.

Featuring three popular actors who in this film give their very best performances (to be sure Swayze is not much of an actor at any rate), Ghost,  directed by cinematic laughmeister extraordinaire Jerry Zucker is reliant on its eccentric fabric to overcome what some believe is a ghost story that for all its built in deceits is still exceedingly difficult to believe.  The film alternates between the somber and broadly comic, yet the entire enterprise is held together by the emotional glue of romance that would even go as far as to have the lovers make pottery while engaging in a steamy make-out.   The early scenes of the film are idyllic and amorous, chronicling the young couple’s move into a Big Apple apartment, though the film’s deftly measured screenplay (sure there is some hokey dialogue, but it comes with the turf) by Bruce Joel Rudin issues some dire warnings that include the hoisting of an angel into a window, Molly’s wish to see a performance of Macbeth, and a news flash of an airplane crash.   (more…)

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Prodigy Justin Kauflin, 91 year-old jazz legend Clark Terry and “Keep on Keepin On” director Alan Hicks pose at Tribeca Film Festival press conference.

by Sam Juliano

You know the routine.  Every ‘ten best’ list I have ever compiled, whether it be for a year, a decade or a special event like the Tribeca Film Festival always has a caveat.  My tenth place slot is regularly occupied by two films that means to accentuate the eternal difficulty in culling down a list of films to just a tenspot, but beyond that it allows me to sneak in an extra film to better frame the quality of a particular group of films or event.  Tribeca 2014 was without any question the finest since Jane Rosenthal and Robert DeNiro founded the hugely-successful venture in response to the 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center towers.  The festival launched in 2002, evolving from its initial base in the Tribeca section downtown to its present base in Chelsea, and the programming has steadily gained in prestige.  Tribeca is one of the most comprehensive festivals for documentary fare, and some of its features are premiered here.  Other films arrive from Cannes, Sundance and Toronto, and more and more each year are winning distribution a short time after there first appearance at Tribeca.  As per my usual manner of preference I concentrated solely on the features that comprise better than 90% of the offerings, leaving the shorts go completely.  This year’s event was mainly staged at the Bow-Tie Cinemas and SVA Theater on 23rd Street and am the AMC Loews Village 7 on Third Avenue and 11th Street.  It was a challenge to criss cross Manhattan mostly by car, but in some instances by cab and subway when time was really tight.  When three online viewings and two Tribeca films I watched at the Montclair Festival are factored in, the total number of films seen is 54, and it is from that vast poll that I choose my Ten Best list and honorable mention list.  Like every year there are duds and some other films that fail to live up to expectations, and the frustration that accompanies a wrong decision in opting for one film over another when they run at the same time.  And when its over there is frustration that a few films were inexplicably missed completely.  2014 represents the first time I am confident I managed to see nearly every must film, hence my ‘Best of’ list is presently with a degree of satisfaction.  I find it hard to imagine that each and every film in my ten best will not be receiving distribution in the coming months.  Though we saw nearly every single “essential” film screened (we caught two that I did miss this past week at the Montclair Film Festival) there are a few that did escape our grasp: Slaying the Badger, This Time Next Year, This is Illmatic, The Newburgh Sting, Just Before I Go, I Won’t Come Back and Night Moves.  The latter opens wide in two weeks. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The vital importance of water in everyday life is given center stage in a sublime new picture book authored by Olive Senior and illustrated by Brooklynite Laura James.  Senior, born and raised on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, moved to Europe and then to Canada after the capital city of Kingston was ravaged by a hurricane in the late 80’s.  Senior is renowned for her poetry and adult novels and short stories, but was supremely flattered when publishers chose Anna Carries Water and the 2012 Birthday Suit as worthy of the picture book treatment.  Senior credits Laura James and Eugenie Fernandez -the illustrator of the earlier book- for transforming her material into such exquisite works, but the veteran writer is certainly to be credited for half the acclaim for her wholly exhilarating ideas.

Anna Carries Water focuses on the young girl of the title, who wants to follow in the footsteps of her older siblings in sharing the task of carrying water on her head from a well at a spring located across “Mr. Johnson’s” field.  Ms. Senior’s narrative stresses the central role of water for cooking and drinking, washing faces, dishes and dirty feet.  Senior states that the family members did not carry water for bathing or washing clothes as those activities were performed in the river.   This particular variation on the coming-of-age theme is the acquired aptitude for learning how to balance a container of water on one’s head, which translates to a sure sign of responsibility and the skills associated with adulthood.  Early in the fable Anna carries around a coffee can while her five older siblings used large metal cans, plastic buckets and an empty cheese tin to gather the water.  Unwilling to concede defeat she must endure the trials of tribulations associated with such a simple yet profound act that will ultimately define her transformation from child to young adult.  In one such attempt she tears off a piece of a dasheen leaf, and floats it on the top of the can of water she puts on her head, but it falls off, necessitating that she carry it in front of her. (more…)

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