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Posts Tagged ‘Ethan Peck’

Recent Movies: Rush, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips. . . And Not So Recent: Tennessee, and Adopt a Sailor

Posted on: October 29th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve managed to squeeze in theater visits to see several of the recent big movie releases over the past three weeks, and have been saving up my comments.  Of the four mentioned above, I think “12 Years a Slave” is the most consequential and should be first on anybody’s list, even though it is not as yet quite so easy to find.

The company marketing this movie is rolling it out slowly, hoping that good reviews and word of mouth will build momentum and make it a hit.  I think they shouldn’t have been so cautious, because it is a fantastic movie, with excellent script, direction and editing and a very talented cast, and could have done well with a wide release.  There are few widely-recognized names in this cast, which may have induced the caution, but the standard of quality is high.  A little cameo appearance by Brad Pitt in a supporting role might help it along some; he is also a producer on the film, and committed to its promotion worldwide.  This is an important film because it is a rare attempt to try to dramatize an African-American slave narrative that was published before the Civil War, with a degree of verisimilitude calculated to explode revisionist nostalgia about the pre-war South and to force audiences to confront the reality of life under the draconian slave codes in effect in this country during the first half of the 19th century.  Will people actually go to see this, having been forewarned that this is what they will see?  They should, because it is also a grippingly dramatic tale, very well told.  I think “The Butler” goes some way towards this direction in realism, but this movie takes it the next step, perhaps because the tale it has to tell is older and thus more alien to a modern audience.  I hope that momentum does build and propel it into a monster international hit.  People should really see this!

After that, the next most consequential of these films, in my view, is Captain Phillips, because of the unflinching eye it casts on a modern phenomenon that occasionally surfaces in the headlines but is worth our concentrated attention: how dismal conditions in parts of Africa have driven young men to piracy on the high seas.  Most of the attention, naturally, would focus on the captain of the American-flag freighter that was boarded by pirates off the coast of Somalia, and his subsequent abduction leading to a confrontation between four pirates in a small life-boat and three big ships of the U.S. Navy.  (This film was obviously made with the cooperation of the Defense Department, and it has the naval officers coming off as sensitive diplomats.  How realistic this is, who knows?)  But I think this film is strongest when it tries to probe the characters of the pirates, and it could have stood with some more of that.  (The Hollywood Star at the center of the story tends to soak up the screen time and attention, making the story about him.)   Like “12 Years a Slave,” this was based on a memoir, this time by the merchant ship captain, Richard Phillips.  As in the case of the other film, one might question how “objective” a story is when told from the point of view of one of the participants.  But the idea of “objectivity” in story-telling is a false herring.  It is really impossible to achieve; there is always a point of view.  And here, the story is told from the point of view of the merchant ship captain, but I think the story could have been even more consequential were it told entirely from the point of view of the pirates.  That’s just me being contrary, however.  The filmmakers here do a good job in trying to project the human complexity of the pirates, and the emotional devastation to the captain, especially at how the impasse was resolved.  This is a serious adult drama, but also an exciting action film, which deserves its current status leading the domestic box office.

“Rush” and “Gravity” strike me as less consequential films.  “Rush” is also based on a true story, though not, I believe, a memoir by one of the participants.  It uses the device of first-person narration, mainly by the actor playing the part of Nicki Lauder, an Austrian race car driver whose competition with the British James Hunt in the Formula 1 competition is the subject matter.  I would not normally bother going to see an auto racing movie — it is not an activity that holds my interest — but I had seen previews that did their job of making me want to see this by intriguing me with the contrasting characters of the two competitors.  The movie is, as one would expect, fast-paced, and there is plenty of humor as well as intensity, and the racing scenes are thrillingly depicted – lots of good editing here, I think.  The story certainly held my attention, but I don’t think the film had a deeper message, other than to tout the fierce determination of these two competitors to surmount any obstacle to be the champion.  The level of blood and gore is pretty high for a film that isn’t a war story — one expects blood and gore in “12 Years a Slave” and, to some extent, a movie about piracy on the high seas.  In this case, however, “Rush” brings home how dangerous high stakes auto racing is.  Do these drivers have a death wish?

Finally, of the recent releases, I saw “Gravity”, the special effects extravaganza about an accident in earth orbit that tests the resourcefulness and courage of two American astronauts.  I saw this one in 3-D, which is the only way to see it, really.  It would be so less interesting in the more normal two-dimensional configuration.  Some might find this film boring for long stretches because it channels the slow-moving (relatively speaking) nature of movement in space, as did the first important movie in this genre, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” –one  of the films I loved as a kid, mainly because of the classical music on the soundtrack and the incredibly handsome young actor playing the lead.  “Gravity” has its chilling moments, and I will not spoil the ending for anybody here by making any big reveal, but I think in terms of plotting and execution there is a high degree of formula in this film, and not so much originality.  The CGI effects are so spectacularly handled as to give one an impression of realism, even though numerous experts have now weighed in as to the impossibilities of this plot actually happening in this way.  Science fiction becomes less persuasive as it moves further away from anchoring in actual science, but when it is well done it can be entertaining nonetheless.  On that front, however, I think the new Star Trek movies are better cinema, because the interaction of the characters is more involving.

Now, the not so recent….  At the beginning of this concert season, I attended an unusual program in lower Manhattan presented by Salon/Sanctuary concerts, a presentation bringing together excerpts from baroque operas dramatizing scenes from the story of the House of Atreus.  The format was to intersperse musical selections from a period instrument ensemble and two solo singers with dramatic readings from English translations of the ancient Greek and Roman texts by three actors, who moved about the performance space will delivering their lines.  One of the those actors — the one who made the most favorable impression on me – was Ethan Peck, the only one of the three who had actually memorized most of his script and spoke it with passionate involvement rather than rendering a “reading” while carrying a script.  Peck, grandson of the great actor Gregory Peck, has been building a career in theater, TV and film, but without attracting my attention prior to this.  I sought out some examples of his film work, and ended up seeing two independent films in which he played major roles, “Tennessee” and “Adopt a Sailor.”  “Tennessee” is the one to see, a compelling story about a charming young man with a fatal disease and the way he influences the lives of others.  Peck, as the young man, gives a subtle and charming performance, radiating quiet confidence and intelligence.  The other film, “Adopt a Sailor,” is a silly little piece about sailors on shore leave during NYC’s annual fleet week being “adopted” through the USO by New York families to afford them some native hospitality.  Peck plays the sailor, and as the part is written, the sailor is a bit of a hick from the central rural  USA sticks (fresh off the Arkansas farm), who is not all that articulate but manages to come out with surprisingly sage observations.  I thought Peck played the part nicely, given what he had to work with, but the three-character plot seemed awkward to me, and I can understand why this film pretty much disappeared without a trace.  “Tennessee,” a more ambitious film, deserves better, and anybody who collects films might want to have it, not least for an early record of Ethan Peck’s work.  I think he has the potential to develop into a really solid actor — he’s already pretty much there — and now the issue is to land roles in bigger films.

Salon/Sanctuary’s Production of “The Heirs of Tantalos”

Posted on: September 20th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night I attended the first performance of “The Heirs of Tantalus” presented by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, a relatively new organization that puts on early music events in New York City.  I had attended one of their concerts last year – a music/dance program starring countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo that was really wonderful – but all their other events last season posed calendar conflicts for me, so this as my first return.

The location was a novelty for me – The Broad Street Ballroom, at 41 Broad Street.  I think this is a former bank building.  The ground floor space has the kind of high ceilings and ornate columns typical of old bank buildings in New York.  The building has been transformed to various uses, apparently, including a school and residences, but this large ground floor space is an auditorium without fixed seating or stage.  Platforms at the east end of the room served for a stage, and chairs were arrayed in rows.  The acoustics were good for the music, not so good for speech, necessitating the actors wearing head-sets for amplification that was a bit startling, since the actors were moving about the room but the sound was coming from large speakers suspended from the ceiling above the stage area.

Salon/Sanctuary does not yet totally have their act together in terms of the logistics of presenting an event like this.  The entrance seemed a bit disorganized, and they did not beginning admitting audience members until about 20 minutes before the advertised showtime.  Ushers did not seem familiar with their task, and the entry was confusing for somebody who bought a ticket in advance online.  They also need to figure out how to start their shows on time.   The same problems of amateurism afflicted the printed program book, which illogically placed cast biographies before the texts and translations for the musical numbers, failed to mention that the program would be in two acts with an intermission, and failed to indicate who composed each of the numbers.   The program page indicated that the music was drawn from works by Handel, Monteverdi, and Alessandro Scarlatti, and a lengthy essay mentioned operas by Monteverdi and Handel and a Handel cantata, but made no mention of Scarlatti.  While one could easily hypothesize which pieces were by Monteverdi, an early Baroque composer, and some of the other numbers seemed characteristically Handelian, the failure to identify what was by Scarlatti was unfortunate, as his music would sound similar to a Handel cantata from that composer’s early period when he was living in Italy or the early English years when his production focused on Italian opera.  In any rate, it is amateurish not to make these identifications in the program.  Furthermore, the texts and translations were in small print that was difficulty to follow in the dimly lit hall, and one text was misplaced in terms of the performance sequence.  More care in the future would be advisable.

All that said, the musical performances were very good for the most part.  Soprano Jessica Gould’s intonation was occasionally suspect, and she took some time to find the volume necessary to be heard clearly over the instrumental ensemble, but once that was accomplished her renditions of the music were most enjoyable and dramatic.  Countertenor Jose Lemos is a real discovery.  I love the countertenor voice and am delighted to add another to my list of excellent countertenors.  He handled the florid music with great skill and communicated real passion.  Bravo!  The instrumental ensemble, members of The Sebastians Chamber Players led by Jory Vinikour at the harpsichord, were excellent in every respect, producing a bright, focused sound and playing with great incisiveness and sensitivity to the changing moods of the music.

The production was conceived as an exposition of the overlapping plots of Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” and Handel’s “Agrippina” using arias and duets (from those and other works) interspersed with translations of verses by Aeschylus, Europides and Suetonius, arranged to illustrate thematic links between these history-based plots and the mythological stories of the Greek House of Atreus, descended from Tantalus and involved in the mythology of the Trojan War and its aftermath.  Three actors, Steven Rattazzi, Ethan Peck, and Florencia Lozano, presented the spoken interludes between musical numbers.  They moved about the hall, walking across and aisles and in the front and back, spotlighted when they spoke and otherwise out of view.  I had the feeling that they could have used much more rehearsal – especially for their unison recitations, which were a bit uncoordinated.  At times it seemed as if they were reading material with which they were not intimately familiar, resulting in some peculiar line breaks and odd emphases.  This was more of a problem with Rattazzi and Lozano.  Mr. Peck, unlike the others, appeared to have memorized a large portion of his text and went beyond reading to acting, which was much more effective.  The others clung more to their sheaves of paper and too often sounded like they were reading rather than acting.  Perhaps by the second performance on Saturday this will be less of a problem.  Erica Gould directed the stage action, and I had the sense that more time was spent on rehearing how they would move about — which seemed to go very smoothly — than with how they would deliver their lines.

Viewed overall, I thought it was a successful evening of early music, worth attending.  It will certainly inspire me to search out recordings by Mr. Lemos, if such exist, and to check out available video recordings of Mr. Peck’s work.  (He is the grandson of actor Gregory Peck, and I was very impressed by his presence, voice, and acting ability.)   This year’s Salon/Sanctuary program line-up looks very promising, and I may actually be able to get to some of the productions.  I hope their logistical performance will improve as they gain experience.