This blog consists of random things that catch my eye. But, starting in the next few days, I will start writing reviews for screenings, regular theater releases, DVD's and various events. Some articles will be taken from Hunterword.com, an online news source I write for.

 

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra - Arvo Pärt

An hour and 12 minutes into THERE WILL BE BLOOD, protagonist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), beats the hell out of his nemesis, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), in a puddle of thick oil and mud. It does not matter why, nor do you have to watch the whole movie in order to understand this scene, although seeing the full movie is well worth the watch, fast forwarding to that scene is strongly recommended.

If the great performance that earned Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar does not grip you, if the violence on screen does not snare your attention, a cello and a piano piece, Frates, created by the Estonian and contemporary composer Arvo Pärt, will seize your imagination.

Frates was the first piece played by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra led by conductor Tõnu Kaljuste at Carnegie Hall Saturday, May 31. Four other pieces followed with the participation of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Frates roughly translates to brother, and it can cause a rush of emotion. At times listeners will be thrown into despair as a solo cello –depending on the recording – weeps softly with a piano that at times trembles ferociously, only to surge into its higher, softer notes.

Picture of Arvo Pärt courtesy Arvo Part Project.

Pärt’s music viscerally impacts listeners. As Peter Bouteneff, a co-directors and Head of Concerts – the other being Nicholas Reeves – writes in the Playbill for The Arvo Pärt Project, “The pieces performed tonight testify to a continuity of musical emotive character: They are somber and spare, holding together turmoil and stability, suffering and hope.”

On stage, Harry Traksmann played the violin with sporadic tempestuousness and moments of deep melancholia. In these moments of dispiritedness, the rest of the string orchestra joined in, adding to the gloom. Slowly, Traksmann played until an uplifting tune surfaced only to be interrupted by a menacing, deep-sounding drum and a small wooden block.

He then plucks at the strings of his violin, indicating the beginning of despair. Maybe it was the fact that I was seated so far away or that whenever I listen to Frates, the volume is always at its highest, but the violin did not speak as powerfully as the cello. Nonetheless, Traksmann was brilliant emulating the mixture of emotions.

The next piece was Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Again, the audience was swept by moods that constantly changed, except this time spirits never seemed to rise. Instead, every note by the orchestra felt like a step deeper into a forlorn world. But what stood out most was the bell that resonated through Carnegie Hall. Being the last instrument played as all the others were cut off in the middle of their distancing vibrations, the ringing of the bell left the air thick with despondency, even after the quietness returned to the concert hall.

This continued throughout the rest of the concert when the choir joined the orchestra. Together they played Adam’s Lament, Salve Regina and Te Deum. Adam’s Lament was also combined with a projection of the English translation. The song follows Adam after he is thrown out of paradise. He feels deep regret for not only being banned from Paradise but also losing the warmth and love God had once given him.

Adam cries at the end through the powerful and talented voices of the choir, “Be merciful unto me, O Lord! Bestow on me the spirit of humility and love.”

Much of Arvo Pärt’s music uses religion as its foundation; he is, after all, an Orthodox Christian. Many in the audience were as well. I sat next to Reverend Dr. Steven Voytovich, a dean at the St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, a sister school of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary, the school that presented the Arvo Pärt Project. He had thick black hair turning grey at the sides and wore black rimmed glasses. Rev. Dr. Voytocich also had the same black robes that a few others in the audience had been wearing as well as a large cross that hung around their necks.

Rev. Dr. Voytovich pointed out Dr. Peter Bouteneff,  Rev. Dr. Nicholas Reeves and Reeves’ father, who watched from a balcony level seat- a heavyset, bald gentleman with a thick white beard wearing the Reverend’s same uniform. One can only imagine the pride he had knowing his son helped put together a wonderful performance. You do not, however, need to be a spiritual devotee to get appreciate Arvo Pärt’s music.

You just feel it as every instrument is played and as the voices of the choir are entrapped in your ear. The Arvo Pärt Project was an emotional experience for all. It is safe to say it was emotional for Arvo Pärt as well, for he took to the stage and looked around Carnegie Hall in disbelief, bowing and cradling himself with his thin arms, his smile clearly visible despite the thick, white beard.

As Rev. Dr. Voytovich asked earlier, ‘I wonder what the conductor must feel like having the composer sit directly behind him?” If conductor Tõnu Kaljuste felt intimidated, it did not show. And if the air was somehow visible like water, I’m sure the intense ripples caused by Kaljuste would be art in themselves.

I left the concert hall that night and burrowed through the subways of New York with the urge to listen to Frates again. I did. In the loneliness of that subway ride home, the piece seemed fitting and the emotions that gripped the audience in Carnegie Hall returned, and I sat on the E train wondering what could bring a human being to write such tragic, hopeful and incredible music.

Originally Published on June 6th, 2014: http://hunterword.com/articles/2424

Rob Reiner Honored by the Film Society at Lincoln Center

Rob Reiner began his career writing for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968 and 1969. A few years later, Reiner became famous playing Michael Stivic, Archie Bunker’s liberal son-in-law, on Norman Lear’s 1970s situation comedy, All in the Family. Meathead was Archie’s contemptuous nickname of Reiner’s character and it stuck, even after he had left the role and went on to build a high-profile career as a director. “I could win the Nobel Prize and they’d write ‘Meathead’ wins the Nobel Prize,” Reiner has stated. — From Wikipedia.org

Rob Reiner, the director of films such as STAND BY ME, MISERY, THIS IS SPINAL TAP and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, was honored with the Chaplin Award by the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Monday April 28.

The Chaplin Award is presented to filmmakers and actors who have left indelible impressions on the silver screen. Previous honorees include titans of the film industry including Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, Michael Douglas and Barbra Streisand. It is named after Charlie Chaplin who was the first person honored in 1972.

The gala also serves as a fundraising event allowing the Film Society of Lincoln Center to continue screening films and organizing panel discussions.

But on April 28, as guests and luminaries in formal cocktail attire left the bar for their seats, Rob Reiner’s name was projected on a gigantic screen in the Avery Fisher Hall of Lincoln Center. One can only guess what was going through Reiner’s mind as he looked at the projection from a balcony level seat. His three kids, wife and a few stars sat close by. Michael Douglas, Catherine Zata Jones, James Caan, Billy Chrystal, Barry Sonnenfeld and Meg Ryan waited patiently for their moment to honor Rob Reiner.

A montage of film clips of his work were shown. Actors revealed anecdotes pertaining to the classic scenes that made up the montage. Afterwards, they spoke respectfully of Reiner before leaving the podium. At one point, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan took the stage, hitting the audience with an amalgamation of nostalgia and melancholia. Time, life’s enemy, revealed itself on the faces of many of these stars.

However, Billy Crystal was still sharp as he quickly joked, “I have good news. If you were hoping for a sequel to WHEN HARRY ME SALLY … this is it.”

Crystal also recalled the embarrassment Reiner experienced on set as he faked an orgasm in front of his mother in order to show Meg Ryan how to perform the scene.

Barry Sonnenfeld, Reiner’s cinematographer and the director of MEN IN BLACK, also recalled the moment when he appeared on stage. Reiner’s boastful laugh reverberated throughout the concert hall despite him being on the balcony level.

The audience was also given two exclusive previews to two films Rob Reiner had a hand in making. The first was a documentary covering California’s Proposition 8, a bill that would have only allowed legal marriages between men and women.

This was not Reiner’s first time being an advocate for equal rights. His 1996 film GHOST OF MISSISSIPPI, starring Alec Baldwin and Whoopi Goldberg, follows the widow of a murdered civil rights leader and an attorney who struggle to find justice. The second preview shown was his upcoming narrative AND SO IT GOES, starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton. Previews looked look promising.

After all the stars had reminisced about their work with Reiner, Martin Scorsese appeared on stage. The microphone and podium almost blocked his figure as he spoke about Reiner’s THIS IS SPINAL TAP. He recalled watching the picture and feeling as though it were a mirror representation of his life.

For example, Reiner played a character named Martin. He covers a concert by Spinal Tap and discovers that the band is, at times, nonsensical. Similarly, Martin Scorsese covered a concert in the same fashion when he was starting off, save for all the odd things that happened in Reiner’s film. Scorsese, the audience and Reiner all laughed at the commonality.

Rob Reiner eventually joined Scorsese on stage to receive his award — a golden, swirling filmstrip on a black square. Reiner left it on a small stand as he joked about Scorsese’s height. He also poked fun at himself, talking about the day Scorsese casted him in his most recent, film THE WOLF OF WALLSTREET.

“I don’t know what was more unbelievable,” he said; “That I was DiCaprio’s father or that DiCaprio was a Jew.” The room roiled with laughter.

He moved on, orchestrating his joy with his massive arms for the award as he explained his disbelief when he received the notification letter from the Film Society. Seeing the big names of the previous honorees left him speechless. Nonetheless, he thanked the Film Society and the actors that helped complete his visions on screen.

It was an overwhelming experience for Reiner and, on a personal level, for this reviewer as well. Seeing so many luminaries up close and (almost) personal in real time not via the silver screen – watching Marsin Scorsese laugh alongside Rob Reiner and witnessing Michael Douglas waving at an unknown figure – fueled my inspiration and awe.

Moviemaking for this writer no longer seemed impenetrable on this night.

Original Article (May 04, 2014): http://hunterword.com/articles/2394

Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

Moviemakers, film aficionados and cinema soothsayers may rave about the visual perfections of digital cameras but cinematic excellence results from the aesthetics of the actual images projected on the screen. HOUSE OF CARDS, for example, uses digital imagery to its advantage. Power and the political atmosphere that moves the story deserve a pristine look.

Horror movie remakes use digital technology to make films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACARE (1974) visually superior because of the grittiness that film offers.  A retrospective of Jim Jarmusch by the Film Society of Lincoln Center also provides a good example. On April 4 Jarmusch’s GHOST DOG: WAY OF THE SAMURAI (1999) was shown in 35mm film.

Jim Jarmusch

The story follows Ghost Dog  (the sublime Forest Whitaker), an urban solitarian who spends his time on a rooftop with his  (messenger pigeons ) when he isn’t acting as an enforcer for organized crime.

He considers himself a samurai following the tradition of the book of Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s recorded sayings, Hagakure. GHOST DOG uses these carrier pigeons to communicate with his employer, Louie (John Tormey), a man with ties to the mafia. When the head of the mafia needs a loose end to be cut, Louie contacts Ghost Dog with a pigeon.

Ghost Dog, because he sees himself as a Hagakure-ian samurai, does not seek payment for his work. Rather, every fulfilled mission Louie is a favor to Louie.

That relationship began years ago when Louie stumbled upon two men on the verge of killing a young Ghost Dog. They raised their guns towards Louie but were swiftly shot down before they had the upper hand.

The heroic act, Ghost Dog believes, leaves him in debt to Louie. When Ghost Dog recalls that fateful day, the guns the two men pointed at Louie were actually pointed at himself. This subtle difference is a homage to Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON, whose various characters recall a crime from their subjective points of view, shaping the events that occurred.

Ghost Dog spends much of his free time reading passages from Hagakure’s The Way of the Samurai. Segments of the film are broken up with title cards that contain long quotations from the book with GHOST DOG reading them in voice over. He trains with a samurai sword, slicing the air with great speed and agility. When he is out on a job in the middle of the night, he steals cars and takes out enemies with a homemade silencer.

The story quickly takes off when a mission goes wrong after the mafia boss’ daughter goes missing. He wants Ghost Dog’s dead and dispatches a mafioso hit squad which kills victims who fit Ghost Dog’s description. GHOST DOG approaches the situation like a samurai, with professionalism and dignity, always respectful to the man who once saved his life.

The 35mm film print of GHOST DOG is grainy, contains white blotches that appear sporadically and has beautiful colors that really stand out – specifically in scenes involving Ghost Dog’s Haitian friend who owns an ice cream truck. The look of the film almost reminds this reviewer of photographs taken in the 1970s. This adds to the overall tone of the film, especially with its gritty subject and its theme of sticking to tradition. At one point, Ghost Dog stumbles upon two hunters who are packing a young black bear into their pickup truck. He explains how in ancient cultures bears were considered equal to men. The two men laugh and slowly aim their guns, giving Ghost Dog time to shoot them down first.

The film also uses sound to reference old samurai films. A moment occurs when Ghost Dog steals a car and quickly ducks behind it. As he does, the sound of a sword slicing through the air adds a comical touch. And that sound can be heard whenever Ghost Dog holsters his gun, spinning it around with his wrist before placing it in its holster.

Forest Whitaker does a great job infusing Ghost Dog with life and an almost childlike innocence as he remains loyal to Louie and the way of the samurai.

Watching Jarmusch’s film, this reviewer was remined of the films that made up the French New Wave. LE SAMOURI, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, being the most obvious. Both films have protagonists that embrace an ascetic way of life and say little to others as they carry out their sanguinary tasks. In the course of their assignments, Alain Delon and Forest Whitaker experience epiphanies that lead to sacrifices.

Furthermore, their only companions are birds. Like Jean-Luc Godard’s MASCULINE/FEMININE and BREATHLESS, several characters in Ghost Dog read books instead of engaging in dialog. It makes this movie oddly romantic. Ghost Dog and the one person he can call a friend – an Haitian ice cream vender (Isaach De Bankolé) who, by the way, only speaks French – communicate this way on occasions. They understand each other even though Ghost Dog only speaks English. 

The camera work by Robby Muller is excellent. During the film’s climax there are a few fast tracking shots that swing around nefarious characters shot down by Ghost Dog. The camera’s movement is smooth and impressive. Earlier in the film, Louie is interrogated by the top men in the mafia. Many shots in the scene are from Louie’s point of view, the men questioning him looking directly at the camera. This subjective camera work is found in Jonathan Demme’s film SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Both movies use it well without removing the audience from the story. On the subject of that same scene, a lot of dialog does not move the story forward but serves the film nonetheless. One character (Cliff Groman) talks about rap and how he is a fan of Rapper Flava Flave. He even takes a minute to recite one of Flave’s raps to the other men. This might not move the story but it certainly develops the character as an eccentric mobster.

Even though Jim Jarmusch’s retrospective is now over, his films are still widely available. For anyone who appreciates the ancient work of the French New Wave, go stream, buy, rent or borrow GHOST DOG, it will not disappoint.

Original Article (April 29, 2014): http://hunterword.com/articles/2387

JOE

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2007) was my first David Gordon Green movie. I was 15. It looked like every other Judd Apatow, masking Green’s unique style.

Seven years later, I stumbled upon another David Green movie, PRINCE AVALANCH. It left me yearning for more. As fate would have it, I attended a recent press screening of his new movie, JOE – a breath of fresh air in a world saturated by superheroes and other nonsensical productions like TAKEN 2.

In JOE, two people’s lives intertwine in the hellish community where they live. The movie takes off with Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old Texan, on railroad tracks with his drunken father. Gary tries to warn his did about the unhealthy consequences of his drinking – as menacing music resonates in the background.

Gary’s attempt to help his father is met with a powerful punch to his face. During their exchange, the camera lingers on his father’s close-up for a few minutes, his aged face and patchy white beard showing a tattered man. He stands and stumbles away after punching his son and this is thematically reinforced into truth.

We later meet Joe (Nicolas Cage), a tough yet respected man living in a wooded area. He owns a business poisoning trees which can be easily cut down later by another company. His employees are people abandoned by society, men who drink late into the night, always getting into trouble. To his workers, Joe is their savior who judges them by how hard they apply themselves to make an honest living. Gary becomes one of these men after stumbling upon Joe’s worksite. He immediately fits in, working as hard as he can to make a few dollars.

Joe’s demons, which can only be subdued, temporarily, with alcohol or sex stem from the ubiquitous injustice he sees around him as well as a dark experience involving a rookie cop. He tries hard not to get involved in other people’s troubles but fails to find ways to circumvent them. In one scene, he visits old friends trying to remove meat from a dear carcass. A rotten-toothed man with a scar on his cheek and long, thin greasy hair shoots Joe with a shotgun after driving by the area. The shooter speeds away as Joe rushes home to fix himself up. He does not go looking for revenge; he simply stays home and drinks, waiting for the the pain to fade.

The rotten-toothed man, Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), is thirsty for revenge because Joe emasculated him at a local bar. He soon crosses paths with Gary and his father on a bridge. Gary becomes a new target for Willie after he is beaten by Gary for making an inappropriate comment about his sister. No child is going to overpower him. Blevins’ plays this villain in an almost perfect performance. He is a coward whose ego gets the best of him, yet, his menacing smile and toothless grin mask his true identity, making him an intimidating character.

Blevins is as impressive as evil incarnate as Heath Ledger was as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT.

Later, Willie takes advantage of Gary’s impoverished father, convincing him to sell his daughter for sex. Joe will not stand for this after a torn and bloodied Gary shows up at his doorstep. His father has stolen the truck he worked hard for and has taken his sister away. For the first time in the movie, Joe gets involved without hesitation.

JOE is a story flushed with great acting. Cage’s  performance, however, is overshadowed by the rest of the cast. Even the minor characters who appear for a few minutes seem to take over the screen. For example, in the middle of the movie, Gary’s father trails a homeless alcoholic through town.

The homeless man’s eyes are empty of any consciousness, as if his body were an empty vessel stuck in a repetitive cycle. The two men end up by some railroad tracks on the outskirts of town. Gary’s father surveys the area and sees no one is around. He lifts a rusty tool from the ground, bashes the homeless man’s head repeatedly and steals his wine and a few dollars from his pockets.

The homeless man does not flinch nor yell in pain. Instead, his eyes remain as empty as before, suggesting that his life ended years before the fatal blows. Subtle, powerful acting like that occurs  throughout the movie. Tye Sheridan also gives an impressive performance that led to him winning the Marcello Mastroianni award.

David Gordon Green makes us watch the grotesque violence as it happens, leaving nothing to the imagination. Shots of the skull denting and blood splattering leave the audience squirming as the camera refuses to cut away from the homeless man’s death. This technique quickly hits the audience with emotion.

Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) is evil incarnate.

Green packs this film with an array of emotions. Happiness, sadness, anger and fear are all packaged in this movie without knocking it off balance. For example, an upbeat montage follows a dark scene where Gary is beaten by his father. Many movies with scenes that transition from one emotion to the next so rapidly tend to fall apart, but Green uses this to his advantage.

After the dark scene, Joe and Gary share beers and venture off in search of Joe’s missing dog. Upbeat music plays in the background as the two characters slowly get inebriated. You would expect that after having an abusive drunk as a father, Gary would not even consider drinking cough medicine let alone beer. Be that as it may, this consumption of beer does help transition into a more cheerful mood. Only beer can numb the reality of his life, even if it’s just for a moment.

Besides the acting and filmmaking, Gary’s relationship with his father makes JOE a great story. Although beaten and robbed by his father, Gary tries to mend his father’s spirit. Right before Gary runs into Willie, he is seen with his father laughing about break dancing. His father waves his arms while Gary tries to imitate him foolishly. Gary has hope for his father and does not give up on him until the last few scenes. It is heart breaking to watch Gary give so much to a man who gives so little in return.

Attention David Gordon Green: I eagerly await your next film.

Original Article (April 30, 2014): http://hunterword.com/articles/2388

Fall to Rise

FALL TO RISE begins on a dark stage. Lauren (Katherine Crockett), whom some would consider too old for her profession, dances in fluid motions. Des (Desmond Richardson) – her instructor and dance partner- envelops her in similar movements. The beginning is also the end for Lauren as she injures herself while performing. It has happened before but Des no longer needs her.

We later meet the self-destructive Sheila (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who also used to dance under Des. Their relationship ended in an abortion and with Des revealing his homosexuality. Sheila spends most of her time drinking at a small bar where a sad eyed puppet watches her dig a deeper hole. We later find her teaching little girls ballet where she informs them of the bitter truth regarding men and love.

The story continues to unfold when Lauren and Sheila meet on a boat. Director Jayce Bartok beautifully captures how Sheila is constantly overshadowed by Lauren. As Des pays Lauren a compliment, Sheila watches in the background, out of focus and in the darkness with her arms crossed. Lauren is everything Sheila wants to be: A great dancer, a mother and a wife.

FALL TO RISE - First Time Fest Film Review

This fuels the tension between these two for a small portion of the movie. Yet, Lauren’s daily routine away from the dance studio shows a different side of her. Her baby is nameless after being more than a few months old. She constantly attempts to practice her fluid dancing in between sleeping and taking care of the baby, only to find herself strapped to a breast pump. Her pump is a chain that keeps her from restoring her dancing, a constant reminder of the traditional life she must accept. As Sheila later mentions to Lauren’s husband, “She’s fucking a dream.” It is something that strains Lauren’s relationship, a mother who does not like being a mother.

Lauren eventually seeks Sheila’s help to improve her dancing who is flattered by such a request. As the story moves on, their relationship strengthens and Lauren finds herself back at the studio with Des. Here she discovers a younger dancer with whom she must compete against for a part in Des’ new performance. Similarly, her husband has allowed a much younger, attractive girl to take care of the baby. Both of her worlds become preoccupied with a battle against the more youthful.

It becomes harder for Lauren to balance both lives, causing her to lose her husband. Sheila tries to support Lauren’s spirit while trying to cling onto her own. The two women endure and both end in their desired positions. Sheila finds her nurtured life while Lauren finally finds the balance between her two worlds.

If Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN was about the pressures young ballet dancers face, Bartok’s FALL TO RISE is about age and how it can paralyze fierce passion. That passion becomes the very thing that disconnects Lauren from the “real world” where having kids and settling down are the expected realities for her age. Most in the theater will relate to Sheila, the dreamer who was never good enough, who failed while watching others achieve their dreams. Daphne Rubin-Vega captures Sheila’s damaged soul quite well. Her lines and emotions are delivered flawlessly. Was Sheila’s story once hers? The same cannot be said for other actors whose deliveries make this reviewer imagine characters from a TV Disney movie. Nonetheless, the movie still conveys and delivers a powerful story.

The camera reveals the surrealism of dance. Wide angled lenses distort movements and body parts, working to the movie’s advantage. Whenever Lauren dances, we in the audience are drawn into another world. We (or her husband) may not understand this world, but it is one that Lauren can literally conform to with her body. In one scene, a camera is strapped to Lauren as she bends her body in all kinds of shapes, making the area around her move chaotically while she remains intensely graceful. Martin Scorsese used this technique in his film MEAN STREETS  when Harvey Keitel drunkenly stumbles through a bar. It worked well then and it works well now.

Great direction and cinematography by Kate Phelan manifest themselves with the introduction of Lauren’s husband. Tight shots of his face, the baby, Lauren and various bottles of milk reveal the dysfunctional relationship because of Lauren’s neglect. Those combined with the baby’s nonstop crying generate almost numbing anxiety. Yet, some techniques are used unnecessarily or maybe unintentionally.

In scenes of characters engaged in casual conversation, the SONY PMW-F3 slowly tips to one side, making the image look lopsided. Such a sloppy scene because it removes us from the movie. Furthermore, a montage with an upbeat indie song completely changes the aesthetics of the movie. Once again, we find ourselves out of the movie. Why was the song used? Yes, it illustrates a moment full of the positive energy Sheila and Lauren are experiencing, but becomes too much.

My editor at first suggested that this was a movie that should be seen. I didn’t agree. Then he suggested that I might write that this was a movie that should be considered. This one has flaws that could have easily been avoided. Nevertheless, Bartok is a director whose future work should be anticipated with enthusiasm.

Original Article (April 6, 2014): http://hunterword.com/articles/2361


I mean, not that fancy store-bought dirt. That stuff’s loaded with nutrients. I… I can’t compete with that stuff.

I mean, not that fancy store-bought dirt. That stuff’s loaded with nutrients. I… I can’t compete with that stuff.

(Source: drug-rug)