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by Sam Juliano

“….Idgy used to do all kinds of crazy harebrained things just to get a laugh.  She put poker chips in the collection basket at the Baptist Church once.  She was a character all right, but how anybody could have ever thought that she killed that man is beyond me…”          -Fanny Flagg

The rap against the film version of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by a sizable minority has always been that it significantly toned down the lesbian romance of its two central characters.  In view of the fact that Flagg’s novel is only marginally more implicit, the argument seems to lose most of its credibility.  Still, the 1991 movie, sporting the streamlined title of Fried Green Tomatoes, has often been brought up as evidence for those who rightly accused Hollywood of cowering away from provocative sexual themes.  For a bastion always seen as ultra-liberal this has always been more than a curious example of bias, if not outright homophobia.   Jon Avnet’s film version to be sure, does straddle the line between benign platonic affection and a more lustier and controlling kind of regard.  It probably had the most suggestive lesbian context of any mainstream film released in the early 90’s or until the sway of sexual acceptance took stronger root in the cultural consciousness.  The story of Idgie and Ruth yields numerous instances make it abundantly clear that these women love each other far more than is normal for most friends.  There a few scenes and instances in the plot that persuasively connect the two romantically without the need to inject the presentation with  blatant erotic encounters.  If Flagg’s critically-lauded Pulitzer prize-nominated novel gave a more compelling picture of a gay romance, it ultimately had more to do with the ability of a literary work to flesh out the details of some narrative strands and relationships that could never make the final cut in a relatively shorter screen adaptation.  The bottom line is this: I read Flagg’s novel back in the day, and have seen the film a number of times over the years, and have come away with the perception that neither presents an overtly lesbian context nor a physical portrait of two lovers overcome by lust.  Both book and film are benign in this sense, but there is still never a doubt that a gay romance is the center of this wistful, charming and nostalgic work which is drenched in feeling and period flavor, and guided by the inexorable bond of friendship.  Still, I can at least partially buy the argument that Avnet played it safe to ensure the wider audience this work so richly deserves by stressing the aspect of platonic devotion, even if the undercurrents are way too potent to dismiss. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

…. Because, in fact, I was too much of a coward to go and see my sister in June, 1940. I never made that journey to Balham. So the scene in which I confess to them is imagined…invented. Any of that could never have happened, because Robbie Turner died of septicemia at Bray Dunes on June 1st 1940, the last day of the evacuation and I was never able to put things right with my sister, Cecilia, because she was killed on the 15th of October, 1940, by the bomb that destroyed the gas and water mains of Balham tube station. So, my sister and Robbie were never able to have the time together they both so longed for and deserved. And which ever since, I’ve always felt I prevented. But, what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that? So in the book I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion. But a final act of kindness I gave them: their happiness.

-  Briony Tallis (Vanessa Redgrave)

Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement has been justly proclaimed as one of the literary treasures of the new millennium.  Because the 2007 film version, directed by Joe Wright has largely been recipient to the same kind of critical praise, we can safely conclude that this trenchant examination of childhood, love and war in class-laden wartime England is a rarity – a great film made from a great novel.  Prior to this accomplishment one would have go back to Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day and the 1993 film made by Ismael Merchant and James Ivory to find a comparable achievement.  To be sure there have been other instances when the written word and the cinematic image have danced together in harmony, though as with just about everything else success is measured in the eye of the beholder.  For this author John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Graham Greene’s The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, Henry James’ The Heiress, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Charles Dickens’  A Christmas Carol and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were all made into excellent films.  I might even be of a mind to include the likes of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and even Stephen King’s The Shining in a more populist vein on a successful literature-to-film shortlist.  Fans of modern literature could certainly make a case for Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men or Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, and there is a subgenre of “truncated” successful films made from much longer great books.  i.e. Frank Norris’ McTeague (made into Greed),  Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, (made into the the three-part French film of 1934).  When one considers, however, that film is only a little over a hundred years old, the instances where the disparate forms line up are few and far in-between. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The ABCs of opera.  Aida.  Boheme.  Carmen.  This triptych expression has come to denote not only the essentials for a newcomer to the form, but also the most pared down assessment of these three quintessential works that continue to rate among the most performed operas year after year worldwide.  The middle of the three, Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 La Boheme may well have emerged the most popular opera of all-time over the past ten or fifteen years if we further examine some telling statistics.  Certainly there can be little doubt that it is the most perfectly composed of the composer’s works, and the one that boasts the most clarity of structure.  It is also (along with Carmen) one of the two most frequently mentioned operas by musicologists to have made converts of non-believers of the form.  La Boheme is the perfect choice for one’s first introduction to opera, whether in attendance at the opera house, via HD broadcast or on an audio CD.  Charming, sublime, lyrical, sentimental and suffused with soaring emotions, this four-act work of moderate length (by opera standards) is finally unbearably poignant, but along the way it showcases some of the most beautiful music ever written.  Puccini’s incomparable melodic felicity -often attacked back in the day as shameless and ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve – by the cynics, is now regarded as old-fashioned melody-making that very few have been able successfully emulate.  Though the composer crafted several operas that border on master-class (Turandot, La Fanciula de West, Manon Lescaut, Gianni Schicchi -the latter contains the beloved suprano aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” while the first-mentioned features the electrifying tenor standard “Nessun Dorma”) La Boheme is one of the three unquestioned masterpieces (Tosca and Madama Butterfly are the others) that have beguiled and ravished opera goers for many decades, and no doubt will continue to do so well into the future. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

“If ‘The Artist’ revels in gimmickry and occasionally oversells its charm, it also understands the deep and durable fascination of the art it embraces…”

-A.O. Scott, The New York Times

After Michel Hazanavicius’s romantic homage to silent cinema, The Artist charmed audiences at Cannes, and won dozens of critical accolades from numerous film critical organizations, it went one to win the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.  From coast to coast (New York and Los Angeles) to the other side of the pond (London and Paris) The Artist captivated scribes and dominated like no other film had done for many years.  In a year when Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation released to spectacular reviews, the vast majority of critics stood solidly by the black and white French charmer derided by it’s few detractors as “lightweight.”  Oscar voters were so smitten that they also followed the Cannes jury’s lead by awarding Jean Dujardin the Best Actor prize.  He was the first French thespian in history to win that honor.  But there were even more ‘firsts':  The Artist was the first French film to win the Best Picture Oscar, it was the first completely black and white film to win since The Apartment in 1960, and the firs silent film to win since Wings in 1927.  In addition, it was the most honored film by the Ceasars in French history and it took Britain by storm, dominating the London Film Critics Awards and the BAFTAs. (more…)

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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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