The Forgiveness of Blood is a Compelling Drama Every Teen Everywhere Should See

The Forgiveness of Blood, director Joshua Marston’s powerful follow up to his Academy Award nominated first feature film, Maria Full of Grace is a compelling drama about teenagers in rural Albania who are expected by family, forced by circumstances and pressured by tradition to partake in a long standing blood feud. Old fashioned honor and patriarchal authority clash with youthful independence in this modern day story of a young man who strives to maintain his heritage while longing for a more westernized life that exists beyond the borders of his isolated world.

Once again, Marston takes his audience to a world foreign to most American audiences and the result is truly inspiring. Although he story of The Forgiveness of Blood takes place in a foreign country, it doesn’t affect its overall appeal, and should not dissuade anyone from seeing the film. It fact the story is so immersive, once it gets going you forget you’re reading subtitles. The main character, Nik (non-professional, Albanian native Tristan Halilaj) is just like any other high school boy. He’s a popular guy who goofs off with his best friend and has a crush on a pretty girl. His one great ambition is to turn an abandoned shop into an Internet café where he and his friends can hang out and be connected to the modern world.

However, Nik’s idealized dream of a westernized lifestyle comes to an end when his father becomes an accessory to murder. Based on ancient Albanian cultural laws Nik, as the next eldest male, is the prime target for retaliation. For safety sake he and his grade school brother are confined to the house. Even Nik’s slightly younger sister, Rudina (another tremendous local find, Sindi Lacej) is effected when forced to leave the school she loves in order to take over the family business of delivering bread. As the film so deftly depicts it, so goes life in Albania. Sometimes children are forced to grow up over night and no one thinks twice about it.

Now obviously there are countless cases in America where teens are forced to give up their childhood existences in order to aid their families, but that’s exactly the point. What I particularly love about The Forgiveness of Blood (and I really, really love this film) is the immediate accessibility of the story regardless of language or region of origin. Marston and co-writer Andamion Murataj boldly tell their well-written tale in a bare and straightforward manner. Because of the universally understood conflicts facing all teenagers, there is no need for heightened melodrama, and fortunately the filmmakers do not submit to that temptation. There are no subplots of Nik’s classmates organizing a political descent, nor is there an attempt to transform his innocent puppy love into a variation of Romeo and Juliet.

Instead, Marston and company faithfully trust that US audiences (and others elsewhere) will relate to a young man’s struggle to become his own person while being forced to comply with the wishes of his elders. However, unlike James Dean’s character in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, Nik’s situation has far more dire consequences than being grounded; if he disobeys he could be killed and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Of course Nik becomes frustrated and lashes out at his siblings as well as his mother who tries to get him to understand that he is no longer a child and must face his responsibilities as a young adult. And that is what this film is ultimately about: the responsibility of being a part of a family and how the dynamics of one can change drastically when under traumatic influences.

There is one particularly astonishing scene that dramatizes this point and obliges me to encourage all parents to see this film with their teenage children. It’s a moment late in the conflict that shows the relationship between Nik and his parents at its absolute worst and best at the same time. Nik’s father (the amazing Refet Abazi) sneaks out of hiding in order to see his beloved family. Because of heightened emotions, what should be a happy reunion quickly turns into a heated altercation typical of most parent/child relationships. It is truly one of the most beautifully touching and heartbreaking depictions of a father’s anguish ever produced on screen, and something every teen should seen if only to get a slight understanding of what it means to be a parent.

As a result of his father’s selfless sacrifice Nik abandon’s his childish ways, and truly grows up. He decides to face the situation like a man and attempts to resolve the blood feud himself with mixed results. The conflict has ended, but not the way anyone had anticipated, which is the perfect ending to a film involving teens. After all, not everything has a happy ending, let alone one that can be easily defined. The conclusion is purposely vague (in its way), which gives The Forgiveness of Blood a refreshing dose of reality missing from most American films of the same vain, and will undoubtedly leave an impression upon the viewer regardless of age, culture, or nation of origin.


Ten Things Every Actor Should Know To Help Themselves on That Next Gig


It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the business, there are probably a few things you still need to know before the next time you step into base camp. Things you’re not likely to know unless someone’s bothered to take the time to tell you. If you’re a seasoned pro it’s likely that most people think you already know what you need to know and therefore would never presume to offer you advice. And if you’re a first timer just breaking into the biz, then it may be a case of people believing it’s just best if you learn things for yourself. But I figure if someone shares this information ahead of time it will save many people a lot of hassle, frustration, embarrassment, and possibly even someone their job.

1) How to Up Your Rate: If you’ve already booked the job and someone is calling to check your rate, don’t be afraid to ask for more than you usually get. Granted, this rarely happens. Someone should have already taken care of this bit of business, and usually through your agent. However, just know that if they have already booked you they aren’t going to even consider replacing you unless you ask for something outrageously different from your usual quote. And even then they’re going to counter offer first. This is particularly important to know for day players (that’s cast members that are not contracted for the run of the show). This happened to my brother-in-law and he was able to establish a higher rate that he then used for all future bookings. His agent was grateful.

2) Sign Out for Your Fitting: If you have a fitting for your wardrobe you should sign out on an Exhibit G form with an Assistant Director (AD). If you are not a regular cast member and this takes more than two hours you are suppose to receive additional pay. But no one will know how long you’ve been there if you haven’t signed out, and be sure to check the in and out times for accuracy. This is your money, so you should look out for it. People make mistakes all the time. It doesn’t hurt to take a picture with your phone either. Sounds extreme, but it’s not really. In fact it’s very common to do so, especially in the world of Stunts. If you’re embarrassed just roll your eyes and say it’s for your agent.

3) Bring Your Identification: Be sure to bring either your Passport, or a Driver’s License and Social Security Card. The AD needs to check them for the paper work. If you don’t like to carry your Social Security card with you, a copy you possess (and keep) is acceptable, and you may not know it but an expired Passport is considered a valid form of ID, and a safe option to carry around that you don’t have to worry about losing. A Passport is especially useful for children who seldom have anything more than a birth certificate and Social Security card (both items fall under the same category on the work form, and so do not sufficiently fulfill the requirement of two forms of ID).

4) Check In: As soon as you arrive in base camp, whether on location or at the studio lot, make sure an Assistant Director (AD) knows you are there. If you are dropped off by a shuttle ask the driver to call the AD on the walkie. Do not assume the AD will somehow know that you are there, or come looking for you. While I was working on a show at the Warner Bros. lot a shuttle from parking brought an actor from parking. He found a trailer with his name on it and went inside to wait. After he had been late for over an hour it was discovered that he had taken the wrong shuttle that had delivered him to the wrong show’s base camp that just happened to have a character’s name the same as his own. If he had bothered to check in with someone (anyone) he would have discovered his mistake, and there would not have been a need to rush him through the works (hair, makeup and wardrobe) in order to get him ready in time. He was rattled which led to a less than pleasant acting experience on his part.

5) Check Your Contract: Once you are in your room take a look at your contract. If there are any mistakes be sure to let the AD know right away so they can be fixed before any shooting begins. Honestly, it’s not a big deal to take care of, but it is a big deal to find out after you’ve been shot on film that you haven’t signed something because you think it needs to be changed. A big problem can be a little one as long as production knows about it, but a little problem can become a big one if the higher ups find out about it later. The AD can get fired for this even if it turns out not to be a big deal for the production. I know. I was when an actor didn’t like the wording of a confidentiality clause on the last page of his contract. However, he didn’t say anything until hours after telling me he had signed his contract I noticed the missing signature. Unfortunately, this was after he had been shooting in picture. He didn’t think it was a big deal, and still has no idea I was let go the next day.

6) Check Your Wardrobe. Even if you don’t like to wear it until after Hair and Makeup or after rehearsal, it’s a good thing to know that it fits and is in fact the wardrobe you are suppose to be wearing. Again, things can be fixed during your prep time if need be, rather than holding up the works for every body because you didn’t try on your wardrobe. This caused a massive delay on one of the shows I was working on. The actress didn’t want to wear her dress to rehearsal, and through the proper channels was given permission not to do so. However, because of that no one noticed the bits of green in her dress until everyone was all ready to shoot Green Screen (whatever was to be projected on the background would have bled through the green parts of the dress). Wardrobe searched frantically to find an alternate that was appropriate for the scene while production tried to shoot something else. No one was happy.

7) Holler for Help: Don’t assume the AD will be checking in on you soon enough. If you need something and the AD isn’t around don’t be afraid to stick your head out of your dressing room door and call for them. That’s what they’re there for; to make sure you have what you need to get ready for shooting. And it can be anything, big or small. It’s not a big deal to get you a cup of tea. It is a big deal to wait, as you swing by crafty to get your own tea once you’ve been called to set. Even if you just want an update. Remember there are only so many ADs on and around set, so they may not check on you immediately unless they know you need something. Help us help you.

8 ) Be Sure an AD Knows Where You Are: Whether you’re on the set or off the set, the ADs needs to know where you are in case you’re suddenly needed for shooting. Whether you’re going off stage for a smoke or back to your room for your cell phone let an AD know. It’s especially useful for them to know where you’ll be at lunch in case they have to bring you back early, and useful for you to know when lunch is scheduled and where it’s supposed to be. If it’s getting close to lunch and you’re not needed an AD can break you early, but don’t sit around waiting to hear about lunch, check. And once you’ve had lunch and find yourself sitting around at catering while everyone else has gone find a teamster (driver) and ask them to call an AD to find out how soon you’re needed in touch ups. There’s always a teamster nearby wherever there are vehicles, from semi-trucks to picture cars. They may not have a walkie-talkie, but they have a cell phone and can get a hold of another teamster who does.

9) Tell Someone If You Nap: This may sound a bit silly, but if you decide to take a nap be sure to let the AD know. We’re not trying to be your mom, but think about it. It just makes sense. Depending on how long you end up resting as you wait to be called, Hair, Makeup and Wardrobe may all need to see you again. In which case the AD will need to let the 1st AD on set know to allow for extra time when anticipating the need for you on set. It’s certainly no big deal – if you need to rest then you need to rest. The AD just needs to know what could effect your appearance so they can prepare properly so that you and everyone else won’t end up being on set any longer than necessary. The same goes if you decide to pick up a game of basketball or do anything else that might cause you to perspire. Makeup and Hair can probably fix you in a jiffy as long as they know what they’re dealing with. The same goes for the AD.

10) Sign Out. Once you’ve wrapped, be sure to change out of your wardrobe first, and then go to the Hair and Makeup trailer for any clean up, but most importantly be sure to sign out with the AD. Remember that your final out time is based on your set dismissal. So regardless of how long it takes for you to say goodbye, you only get an added fifteen minutes added to your out time. That is unless there’s specialty makeup involved in which case you get an exact, to-the-minute dismissal when you step out of your trailer to leave. These times only really matter if you’ve worked longer than 8 hours. Then you go into overtime and that can make a substantial difference to your paycheck. Once gain, it’s a good idea to take note, if not a picture of your in and out times. And save a Call Sheet from the day. Not only will you have a list of all the names of the people you worked with during the day, but you’ll have all the necessary contact information (usually listed on the front, upper right hand corner) in case you need to get a hold of the production later on.

There’s probably a million and one other things that could be good to know for working on a film set, but that’s where your own experience will come in. That and a healthy dose of humility, meaning if you don’t know something just ask about it. It’s never a bad thing to admit you’re still learning about being on set. Things change all the time, so no matter how long you’ve been at your career it’s important to understand that there’s likely always something to be learned every time you book a gig. If you’re lucky, and talented, then you’ll be spending a lifetime at it, and more than likely you’ll pass along some much needed information to an AD or two along the way.

Oscar Nominated Short Films in Theaters Now

ShortsHD working with Magnolia Pictures is releasing this year’s Oscar® Nominated Short Films to over 200 theaters across the United States and Canada beginning Friday, February 10th, 2012.

Due to the popularity of last year’s theatrical release of the Academy Award nominated Documentary shorts audiences will now have the opportunity to see all three categories of short films before Oscar night on February 26th. These three separate theatrical programs (Documentary, Live Action and Animation) will screen across the country, accessing and entertaining an audience they might not otherwise reach.

I’m a huge fan of the short format, and strongly believe in its essential place among the film world. For years the Academy has played with the idea of eliminating the categories all together, succumbing to pressure from those that believe them to be antiquated modes of filmmaking left over from the days when movie houses actually showed shorts as part of their daily programs. However, due to a surge in public interest in recent times the Academy has rethought this suggestion and has retained the honorable format. After all, many a great future filmmaker has begun with the production of a short film, and those efforts should be duly awarded.

Having just finished watching all of this year’s fine nominees I can whole-heartedly recommend each and every one without reservation. The diversity of subjects and presentation will undoubtedly appeal to a wide scope, providing something for everyone. The animated shorts are touching and definitely family-friendly. I’m particularly found of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which is about a Buster Keaton like character who lives a life of quiet beauty among a playful group of books. And the live action films offer a nice variety of plots, ranging from heart-warming (Raju, my pick for Oscar) to out-right hilarious (Tuba Atlantic). The short documentaries are particularly moving with subjects that are issue oriented and of immediate interest. I dare anyone not to be uplifted and moved by these poignant expressions of feeling, especially The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, my pick for the Oscar.

Although, I must say I wouldn’t be surprised if The Barber of Birmingham takes the prize come Oscar night. It is a particularly inspiring short documentary about an 85 year-old man who has lived and watched the social events that have changed this country’s view on the African American’s place in our society from the Civil Rights Movement right on up to the election of President Obama. It’s a magnificently compact film that elicits a feeling of pride and tugs at your heartstrings at the same time. I just think it may be too short to grab the statuette. It feels as if it should be longer than its 18 minutes. It seemed to end rather abruptly and left me wanting more, which I felt could have been accomplished.

In Los Angeles the Animation and Live Action shorts will be at The NuArt Theater in West LA and Regency Theatres’ South Coast Plaza in Santa Ana. The Documentary shorts will begin screening later this month on February 17 at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3. Also on the 17th you can catch the Documentaries at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. And still later, on the 24th, the Egyptian will be screening the Live-Action nominees, as well as the Animation nominees (check theaters for exact schedules and ticket pricing).

I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity and see these wonderfully entertaining films. Not only will you undoubtedly have a terrific theater going experience, but you’ll also have a leg up on your office Oscar pool. Think about it. Here’s three points no one ever gets (unless it’s with a wild guess) because most people never get the chance to see them, but you do. Just think how smart you’ll look. It’s a win-win situation!

Along with the theatrical run, the nominated short films will be released individually later this month on iTunes beginning February 21st. The release will also be available via cable’s Movies On Demand (MOD), distributed by In Demand and will be available via Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse, Cablevision and Cox Communication.

Woody Harrelson’s Performance in Rampart is Well-Worth the Price of Admission, and Quite Possibly Saves an Otherwise Go Nowhere Film

In case you haven’t noticed, Woody Harrelson has developed into one of today’s finest actors, and in Rampart he really puts to the test his stunning ability with a robust and charismatic performance that will undoubtedly command your complete attention. The role itself is well defined and rigidly structured, but what Harrelson brings to this performance of a corrupt Los Angeles cop facing his comeuppance is an intriguingly nuanced and complex character study of a completely amoral man. From the first frame to the last, Harrelson is a pure pleasure to watch as he adeptly carries the burden of a thoroughly unpleasant yet charming personality who learns nothing from his mistakes. His place in the world alters drastically he knows, however, ultimately he remains the same. And that is the only real problem with the film: the main character does not change.

Set in the near past of 1999 Los Angeles, veteran police officer David Brown (Harrelson) is portrayed as the last of the renegade cops of the nefarious Rampart Division. Not directly associated with the department’s main scandal, Brown faces an investigation of his own after being caught on tape using extreme, unnecessary force. Although he is undoubtedly a troublemaker with a questionable past (the murder of a rapist may or may not have been in the line of duty), Brown initially appears to be a working guy trying his best to take care of his emotionally estranged family, when he is suddenly placed in the position of having to struggle for his own survival. However, any initial geniality allotted the character via Harrelson’s past on screen personas (Woody from Cheers) is quickly wiped away as his officer Brown attempts to womanize everything in his path (including two ex-wives), plans a robbery, attempts to hustle the investigators assigned to his case, and obsessively tries to control the remnants of his strange family life. Even when it becomes quite clear that Brown is at the end of the line, he just doesn’t face up to the facts, resolving nothing.

Many things happen to Brown during the course of 98 screen minutes. However, his character doesn’t seem to be altered by any of the potentially life changing events. And this may be a huge problem with most audiences, because if the main character doesn’t change there is a risk of the viewer feeling as if nothing happened during the course of the movie. There’s certainly plenty going on all around Brown and to him, but the vague and inconclusive ending leaves a lot unsaid and certainly undetermined. It’s actually a pretty brilliant shot devised by director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (Dog Fight, The Messenger). I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s incredibly similar to the stunning final shot of an old 1932 film with Paul Muni, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Sensational title aside, the last image in this classic film is nearly identical to the one in Rampart and leaves the audience with the same sense of uncertainty for the hero’s fate.

Of course, the ending of the Paul Muni film was the result of a series of events that led to a radical change in the character’s personality, concluding with a sensational ending. By comparison, there is no final catharsis in Rampart. But then, modern audiences may not care that officer Brown exhibits no alteration as a result of his journey. The film provides a satisfying ride, full of titillating situations and tense drama performed by an impressive cast that includes Robin Wright as a criminal attorney uncontrollably drawn to Brown’s magnetism, Sigourney Weaver as a police department representative who’s trying to get Brown to see the dead end sign of his situation, Ice Cube as one of the investigators assigned to bring him down, Audra McDonald as one of many one-night stands, Cynthia Nixon as one of two sisters who are ex-wives, Ned Beatty as a retired cop with questionable motives, and Steve Buscemi in an unusually small throwaway role of a government official bent on cleaning up Rampart at all costs.

And then there’s Harrelson. As Officer David Brown he gives one of the most visceral performances of a dirty cop ever brought to the silver screen (including turns by Harvey Keitel and Nicholas Cage in the two Bad Lieutenant movies). It is a character that is so entrenched in his ways that he simply refuses to go along with the rest of the world around him. And perhaps that is the point. Since Brown will not adjust to a changing environment he must go the way of the rest of the corrupt police department, which has been left behind by a progressing society. It’s a sticky trick to pull off: purposefully stunting the lead for the sake of the story. However, it’s not so much of a challenge when you have some like Harrelson performing the illusion. In Rampart he proves beyond a doubt that he’s got the talent to pull off any feat of acting ingenuity.

Rampart, a Film by Oren Moverman opens Friday, February 10th at The Landmark Theatre in Los Angels, and the Pacific Arclight in Hollywood.

February 17th the film goes can also be seen at the Laemmle Noho 7 in North Hollywood, the Century Downtown 10 in Ventura, the Century Stadium 25 Theatre in Orange, the Century 20 Bella Terra in Huntington Beach, the University Town Center 6 Cinemas in Riverside, and the Century at the River 15 in Rancho Mirage.

Two Cinephiles Chat About Movies…

My sister, Cecelia Specht and I see each other about once a week. She usually stops by while I’m working on a post for this blog, or my website, Inevitably we start talking about what I’m writing and that usually leads to one tangent and then another about films, old and new. Our conversations tend to cover a broad spectrum but the topic almost always remains centered around movies, the industry, the people in it, etc. Although we share the same appreciation for films we have two unique perspectives, as my actual work experience has always occurred behind the camera and since she’s an actress her work has occurred mostly in front of it.

I have always found these conversations to be entertaining and have thought to retain a record of them so that I could share them. Sort of in the same way people once saved letters in order to keep a record of their favorite correspondances. I now have. In this first publicly posted conversations between the Specht twins (I’m older by 7 minutes) we talk about an upcoming pubic appearance by recent Academy Award nominee Max von Sydow, other Supporting Actor nominees, past Oscar tie winners, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Lionel Barrymore, Victor McLaglen, we also theorize on why there are 9 Best Picture nominees this year and not 10, and of course we mention our favorite living Best Supporting Actor winner, Martin Landau.

Sorry to say my sister is unusually quiet here, so you may have to turn up the volume.

Kill List Is Less Than You Think

I’m sorry to say I had high expectations before going to see Kill List. I’m sorry because my expectations were not met. Which is too bad because the film deserves more consideration for what it does accomplish rather than to be remembered for what it does not. However, this is difficult when the very cool looking movie poster promises a gut-wrenching-hit-man-thriller. Unfortunately, the film does not live up to this hyperbole. Which is sad, because without knowing the hype one could actually enjoy Kill List for its actual merits, such as an unusual story full of interesting surprises that catch you off guard like a well-placed punch to the arm. It won’t leave you reeling, but it definitely leaves you with an unsettling feeling after you leave the theater.

One of the big faults to Kill List is that the first twenty minutes or so deals with some rather boring and mundane problems of a small family living in the suburbs of England. Apparently the man of the house, Jay has had problems with his job and is having difficulty getting back to work. It’s a nice twist when you discover what it is he does for a living, but then you already suspect that from the movie poster, so the twenty minute build up falls incredibly flat. The intriguing concept of a hit man having problems getting back behind the trigger works well on its own, and an audience who is in the know is anxious for the rest of the promotional promises to be fulfilled. Bring on the gut-wrenching chills already!

Those chills previously referred to don’t arrive until the story really begins to take shape when our “hero” finally goes back to work. It seems that Jay (Neil Maskell) is very good at his job, but has a tendency to go overboard on thoroughness. This places his best friend and colleague, Gal in the uncomfortable position of being the voice of reason when things begin to go terribly wrong due to Jay’s inability to restrain his penchant for extreme violence. Gal, played by Michael Smiley (whose performance is the highlight of the film) does his best to contain Jay, but each kill from the assigned list is more brutal than the last, escalating into a veritable blood bath.

The most interesting and unexpected twist comes when the partners are camping out on the estate of their final target. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s really quite strange and causes the movie to take an abrupt, if not jolting left turn into horror. It’s a turn that has been set up much earlier in the story through Jay’s home life as well as within the environs of his current employer, but the indications are so subtle it’s impossible to make any sense of them ahead of time. I believe this is meant to be part of the mystique of the film, but I found these moments to be distracting since they happen long before the movie has made its transition into its final form.

In the end Jay is forced to face his personal demons in a very real and tangible way that results in a confrontation that is unthinkably cruel. And although the ending is imaginative, it isn’t in the least bit surprising as the scenario is predicted long before the final conflict. Ultimately Kill List falls short of its ambitious intentions. For all its shocking violence and unusual plot devices it just doesn’t add up to the gut-wrenching-hit-man-thriller it so eagerly wants to be. Which is too bad, because if it had just tried to be an interesting story about a stressed out hit man trying to get his groove back who turns violence into an art, I think I could have really enjoyed it.