Press

April 10, 2015


Columnist and film critic Jack Garner writes about the new film festival coming to Rochester.

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Peak experience: Geva’s staging of ‘The Mountaintop’

I hate to suggest that The Mountaintop, Geva’s current play, is must viewing — as if I’m giving a homework assignment. But you do need to see this powerful play about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on Earth. It’s such a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.

Memphis playwright Katori Hall clearly used for inspiration King’s famous last speech — “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” Then she imagined a remarkable conversation between King and a Lorraine Motel maid in his room, a conversation that includes humor, powerful considerations and surprising, unexpected dimensions.

Royce Johnson and Joniece Abbott-Pratt — two talented newcomers to Geva — deliver riveting performances as King and the maid named Camae. The play is so potent, at its end the audience sat silently stunned for several seconds before erupting into applause.

As I watched The Mountaintop, I thought back to a visit my wife and I had to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee six years ago. It’s now the National Civil Rights Museum, and I highly recommend a visit. After entering through the back of the structure, you wind your way through several rooms and exhibits. Then, without warning, the museum path leads you into the motel room where King spent his last night — and the balcony where he was shot. Geva’s set is a near-exact replica of that room.

NEW FILM FEST. Rochester has a new film festival, adding to a long list by which we seem to earn the title The Image City. Fast Forward Film Festival is the name and its claims to fame are two: First, the films are all shorts (none more than five minutes long) showcasing new environmental perspectives. Second, all have been made by filmmakers and filmmaking students in the Rochester area. Thus, they’re homegrown films about homegrown solutions to environmental issues and sustainability in the 21st century.

I am honored to be one of four members of the festival’s jury, and took part in viewing the 54 submitted films. Of those, 16 films have been selected to be shown from 7 to 9 p.m. on April 17 at the Little Theatre. Admission is $5.

Of those, a dozen have been picked for encore screenings at the awards ceremony on April 18 at the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House.

Awards will be given in three categories — the most compelling, engaging and inspiring; the films that offer the most unusual perspective; and those that offer the strongest calls to action.The filmmakers and the fest will be celebrated with a gala reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Eastman House, followed by screenings of the dozen winning films, and the awards ceremony from 8 to 9:30 p.m. in the Dryden. Admission to the gala, screenings and awards is $25 ($20 for students and seniors). Gala attendees can also visit the Eastman House’s fabulous current exhibit, “In Glorious Technicolor,” about the formidable cinema process.

As a jury member, I was quite impressed with the quality of work by local filmmakers and students. And I will confess I had a personal favorite — an animated gem about ocean pollution called Ain’t No Fish. Singing seals in the arctic accompany a great classic song by Hoagy Carmichael.

CD OF THE WEEK. Tuesday marked the centennial of the birth of one of the great cornerstones of vocal jazz, the great Lady Day, Billie Holiday. Surely, she and Ella Fitzgerald stood astride the world of great singers, like two distinctively different goddesses.

Ella was the smooth and precise singer, with a pure tone and an amazing scat facility. Billie was more rooted in the blues, more likely to connect with the terrors, turmoil and challenges of her often-abusive life, and incredibly moving. And, if you looked up “languid” in the dictionary, you’d find her picture.

If you care about American music, you need to know about Lady Day. The new Columbia/Legacy set, Billie Holiday: The Centennial Collection, is a great foundation for an essential Holiday collection. The 20-song set is culled mostly from the late ’30s, and includes such Holiday musts as “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” “Gloomy Sunday,” and “Fine and Mellow.”

Hopefully, this will only be the start, for there are must-have treasures in her Decca and Commodore recordings, and the especially poignant and painful final recordings on the essential album Lady in Satin. (Her voice in that album is battle-worn by tough living, age and drugs, but she had never before inserted such feeling in the material.)