Tuesday, May 21, 2019

‘The World At Arm’s Length’ - at the Guild - places us in a world with no sight and minimal sound

Review by Lindsay Waite, Albuquerque, New Mexico 

Imagine being born with an undiagnosed disease - Usher Syndrome -  that gradually takes away sight and hearing. Imagine that it is not discovered until 8th grade, after which you are sent away from friends and family and your health continues to deteriorate.  Sven Fiedler lives this life.   In the documentary The World At Arm’s Length (2018, German and Spanish with English subtitles), we travel with Sven and his team as he pursues a dream he’d had for two decades:  walk the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), more than 500 miles.  He has some hearing ability, can communicate with tactile sign language (using one’s hands placed over another’s to feel the shape and movement of signs), but requires 7 different DBAs (Deaf Blind Assistants, 3 of whom are hearing-impaired) to provide support along the way.   

Directed by Susanne Bohlmann and produced by Christopher Hawkins (both of whom also appear in the film), The World At Arm’s Length take us on a unique, enlightening and heartbreaking journey.  Spoiler alert: Plot is covered from beginning to end in this review.  Neither had known anyone with this condition before, but as explained by the director, “When we were told that Sven was about to travel the Camino, this seemed like such a heroic decision and one which would teach us a lot about him, his reality and determination.”  Sven, in fact, intended to raise awareness of those suffering hearing and vision loss and with the help of one of his Assistants, Almuth, was contacting media about his planned journey.

The film opens with a gray screen, some discordant sounds including a high pitch, and tiny blotches of light gray every now and then.  We are experiencing what presumably Sven experiences, but he’s not going to let that stop his journey.  Several times during the film, we are brought back to this dark world with this gray imagery and unexpected sounds, as dialogue continues.  We can briefly think about what it’s like to, for example, navigate a rocky path without sight.

Seemingly, Sven is off to a good start, with a team of three Assistants to begin - Silke, Almuth and Katya - who provide descriptions of the surroundings and guide him as he holds onto a strap attached to an Assistant’s hand or backpack.  Initially, he is kind toward the Assistants, appreciating their support, but underneath there is inner turmoil.  As he falters and an Assistant reaches for him, he grumbles, “You don’t have to catch me.” She responds, “It’s a reflex.”  He grimaces.

Since he can’t take in the beauty of the surroundings, despite the attempts of his Assistants to offer vivid visual sketches of what they see, his focus turns to completing the walk as quickly as possible. In fact, his pace often becomes so fast that it is not easy for the Assistants or the filmmakers to keep up with him.  Sven is angered, for example, with Silke, who says the pace is too fast.  Later, when Katja suggests she first walk up a steep hill to see if it is open before they all walk up, he mutters, “Oh. Now the DBA decides.”  He resents the Assistants despite their efforts to address his needs and make the journey as meaningful as they can.

Sven is briefly uplifted when a group of hearing-impaired people meet him at a stop, and they use tactile signing and hugs to wish him the best.   He hugs each of them, communicating verbally as well as by signing.  

But once back to the journey, it is clear Sven is mad that Assistants are taking control. He rails that he wants an Assistant - not a Carer (who he characterizes as a commander).  He wants to be in charge.  A rage slowly builds because he knows he needs the Assistants.   He is angered when Silke explains she can’t keep up his pace. Later, he shouts at the Assistants, coming out of his bedroom, when he hears them talking and laughing.  He accuses them of wanting to get rid of him, ridiculing him.  As Silke leaves the team along with the film crew (since the intent was only to film the beginning and end of the journey), director Bohlmann stays since she wants to see how the story unfolds day-by-day.  At one point she draws Sven aside and asks him how he feels.  “Alone.”  She has become part of the film.

I asked the production team on whether it was the intent of the director and producer for them to become part of the story. They responded via email:

“The intent was never to include ourselves in the film.  The film we began with in our minds was purely about how Sven interacted with the environment and interpreted it in his mind.  We were unable to share this reality enough with Sven to do this justice [since] our expectations were incorrect.”  

Thus, they change their vision of the journey to include director Bohlmann’s view of his journey, its impact on his team and Bohlmann’s gradual understanding of Sven’s experience despite his unwillingness to share his thoughts most of the time.

When a new crew arrives to join Almuth and the filmmaker - Manu and Antje, hearing-impaired and a long time Assistant for Sven - it seems as if there is a chance for a shift to a more positive experience for them all.  This moment is short.  Quickly, Sven accuses Manu of simply wanting a job and money - not his friendship, shocking Antje. She has not seen this side of Sven.

Sven wants independence, which he can never have. He wants a bond of friendship with persons he hired as Assistants, but his insults are brutal and he drives them away from him. He calls Manu inhuman.  He complains that the team should be “All for one and one for all,” but instead it is “One for all and three against one.”  He is left out, remarking “I’ve got a name. I’ve got a heart and soul.” As kind as all the Assistants are to him, he responds with bitterness and sarcasm.  “Being along here is even harder.”  

The producer, Christoper Hawkins, shows up on a bicycle and they hug for a long time, Sven in tears.  Manu notes that for the first time, and perhaps the only time, Sven has forgotten that he is powerless, that he is in constant need of some kind of help. “He didn’t need us to complete his senses,”  she believes.

The involvement of Hawkins in the film was accidental because the camera was rolling constantly.  Sven had a connection to Hawkins.  Bohlmann explains that “Sven drew him in to certain impactful scenes and it then became impossible to leave him out if the story were to be told.”  Truly, these are some of Sven’s most revealing moments - when he feels the support of Hawkins.

There are further verbal altercations with the Assistants. At one point, he admonishes Manu when she takes a moment to soak her feet in a river as they await a car at at pickup point.  He remarks, “Now she is a pilgrim, not an Assistant.”  His contradictions abound.  “Nobody is here for me.”  “I don’t care if I reach Santiago.”  When Manu plans to leave since he won’t take a break for a day, he points his finger toward her face and shouts, “I need you!  Are you happy now? I need you!”  But, Sven trusts no one.

In Santiago, at the Zero Stone, he has already instructed his Assistants to not hug him, so they don’t.  They hug each other.  Sven briefly has a look of peace on his face since he has achieved his goal, but when director Bohlmann comments that the walk gave him what he needed but not what he wanted, he responds, “My heart still hurts but I made my Camino.  That’s the most important thing.”

When is he most happy?  When he is home again in his own surroundings, opening the blinds, stepping out on his balcony, moving comfortably around his space, and using his hands and memory as guidance.  What does this space give him? “Freedom.” 

The filmmaker closes with her own thoughts on how disconnected people are who are unable to hear or see.  She reflects, “when one is blind, one is disconnected from ‘things’ and when one is deaf, one is disconnected from ‘people’.”  But to Bohlmann, “If I can’t read the face of my companion, I can only search inside of me.”  She believes the hero journey of Sven ended when Sven arrived home again.  Yet, Sven is planning another journey, to hike to “the end of the world,” the Atlantic Ocean.  He wistfully dreams of a second chance.  But he has to work out his own negative and destructive reactions to his disability and understand that fear, anger and confusion about the motives of helpers only drives him into more loneliness.

This filmmaking team plans to continue to document the stories of people who have extraordinary challenges in their lives, and I look forward to their future productions.

This film has a limited release in the USA, so the screening at the Guild, beginning this afternoon, is a rare opportunity to view it.  The World At Arm’s Length is also being released in Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

The Guild’s screenings are May 21-May 23 (4:15PM, 8:30PM) and May 28-30 (4:15 PM, 8:30PM).  New Mexicans have an opportunity for a unique glimpse into the world of a dreamer with extraordinary challenges and his quest to walk the Camino despite tremendous obstacles, including himself.  Here is a link to the trailer.  https://www.imdb.com/videoplayer/vi1829288473

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

McQueen, opening August 17 in Albuquerque: “I want you to be repulsed or exhilarated.”

My knowledge of the fashion world is minimal.  In the 90s I subscribed to Vogue magazine, drawn to the unique clothing worn by people I did not know going to places that I’d never been.  I saw the artistry.   During this decade, Alexander McQueen was shaking up the fashion world with his extraordinary and shocking vision, a vision tinged with violence, suffering and survival above all.  McQueen, then, was in my peripheral vision but I knew little about him.  

In the documentary McQueen I learned much more.  Lee Alexander McQueen was a brilliant, inspired and tortured visionary, who briefly made his mark, then was gone.  After watching this story of his life, I learned I knew more about him than I suspected.  He collaborated with artists who I do follow, like filmmaker Tim Burton and musicians David Bowie and Lady Gaga.  His extraordinary vision shines through them.

This film, written by Peter Ettedgui and co-directed by Ian Bonhôte and Ettedgui, is beautifully produced with a home movie feel.  It opens up this world to viewers who are fans, curious or perhaps are unaware of this rebellious designer.  The film consists of intimate interviews with family members, close friends and colleagues along with footage from his fashion shows.  There are also home videos, current and archived photos and a perfect music backdrop composed by McQueen’s collaborator, musician Michael Nyman.

Bonhôte and Ettedgui capture the lack of civility, the genius and McQueen’s ability to turn haunting nightmares  into disturbing but memorable runway shows.  The film explores the inspiration for and creation of five spectacular shows: “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” “Highland Rape” (probably his most controversial), “Search for the Golden Fleece,”  “Voss” (his first show when he was brought onboard by Givenchy), and “Plato’s Atlantis.”  

While much of the clothing appears unwearable and is shocking, nevertheless one can’t take one’s eyes off these theatrical and disturbing images. McQueen vehemently denied misogyny, saying “A man takes. The woman doesn’t give.”  McQueen posited that his goal always was to make women look stronger. He clashed with the mainstream fashion industry and its focus on women as simply decorative. He wanted women to express strength and individuality in his runway events.

McQueen, the son of a taxi driver, burst of out of the East End of London, made a controversial and memorable name for himself, then took his own life at age 40 after achieving great success and notoriety. McQueen developed a love for fashion at an early age.  In school, instead of listening to his teachers, he would doodle, drawing various items of clothing.  He apprenticed  for a small tailor on Savile Row as a pattern cutter at his mother’s suggestion, who took him on despite his skinhead appearance.   

Not only did he cut - he was passionate about design and detail-oriented to a fault.  Quickly, McQueen’s skills blossomed, and with no real knowledge of the fashion world, he applied to the prestigious Center St. Martin’s (whose alumni include Stella McCartney and John Galliano) and was accepted.  From the beginning, his goal was to make people feel emotions, and as he said, he preferred they feel “repulsed or exhilarated.”  

Photographer:  Ann  Ray  Courtesy  of  Bleecker  Street 
McQueen’s first collection was presented in 1992  - “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.” It was the final project for the St. Martin’s Master’s program.  Outrageous, energetic, passionate and deeply disturbing, the show featured Victorian-influenced pieces, black, pink and blood red, some tattered, others with human hair sewn in.  Fashion trailblazer Isabella Blow attended that show and was stunned. She bought the entire collection and became a mentor to Alexander (Lee, to his friends) until he turned his back on her in later years. The naught persona remained with McQueen his entire life.  He was admired, revered and hated, winning British Designer of the Year” twice in early years all the while courting a lot of negative press for his disturbing imagery.  

 Bonhôte and Ettedgui were thrilled they were able to gain access to McQueen’s sister and nephew, his colleagues Mira Chai Hyde (stylist) and Sebastian Pons (assistant designer), and early supporters in the fashion industry along with Issy Blow’s widower.  It was important to the filmmakers that they not just include fashion editors and supermodels.  They were striving for an authentic portrait of McQueen, the man.  Perspectives of family, boyfriends and those with whom he collaborated made the film a very personal one rather than a career retrospective.  Rare video and audio tapes and photos from McQueen’s early days of creation give the film the home movie sensibility.

Says Bonhôte, “We wanted to speak with all of the people in his life who were intimately connected with his creativity.  He really was a kind of genius and extraordinary to watch. That’s what we wanted to capture.  A bolt of cloth, a piece of chalk and an unerring ability to assess measurements produced trousers or a jacket almost instantly.  He was a little like Mozart in Amadeus, an obsessive genius running on raw energy and instinct.  There was something not quite civilized about him.”

Photographer:  Ann  Ray  Courtesy  of  Bleecker  Street  

As McQueen’s life moved toward an early end, he adopted the persona of the brand, something in his earlier years he vehemently opposed.  Filled with doubt, he reflected, “I have to question my motives.”  Despite his financial success, McQueen was still haunted; the exorcising of his demons through his designs and runway shows  was not enough. McQueen was no longer the brash and happy young designer, but a darker, thinner man sporting high end men’s fashion, unsmiling.  Losing Issy without reconciling with her, devastated him.  Losing his mother was the final straw. 

McQueen celebrates his life, his genius and his artistry in a personal and meaningful film and should not be missed. This trailer gives you a glimpse at the film.  https://youtu.be/4OjX3ZbsfbU  

McQueen opens Friday, August 17, in Albuquerque at UA High Ridge Theatre 8.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Leave No Trace, a compelling film, evokes hope, fear, loss

Leave No Trace (2018) opens in stunning verdant woodlands, an idyllic world, in which a father, Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) are gathering edibles for their evening meal.  Birds chirp, ferns and leaves softly rustle in the wind, spider webs glisten and the natural setting provides comfort. They are self-sufficient and content, and begin preparing a simple meal after they return to their peaceful campsite.  Dialogue is minimal.  Father and daughter don’t need a lot of words to communicate.  Only the practice drill called by Will alerts us that they are in hiding.  Will’s reaction, in a dream it appears, to the subtle sound of a helicopter suggests, though, that he is haunted by battle-related PTSD.  It’s also clear they have been living off the grid for quite some time. This isn’t just a camping trip.

Their dreamworld crashes when Tom makes a tiny mistake, resulting in their discovery by park rangers.  They both are given a battery of psychological tests by sympathetic social workers, and end up being placed in a modest home on farmland.  To Will, these four walls aren’t home.  About the campsite that was destroyed by park officials, he laments, “They just don’t understand that it was my home.”

At first Tom also is uncomfortable in the more conventional surroundings. Then, she tentatively takes steps towards friendships, interacting with young members of the 4H Club.  But Will wrestles with demons.  This change in their lives doesn’t work for him.

When Will insists that they pack up and leave, Tom complies but questions, “Dad, why are we doing this?”  Still, very few words pass between them before they journey on a bus.  They end up in a different forest, this one darker, colder, wetter, with a foreboding atmosphere and distant thunder. Their apparent bucolic life has been replaced by one fraught with danger.  Instead of admiring Will for his independence and determination to raise his daughter free from convention, we begin to doubt his choices. He is placing himself and his daughter in jeopardy.  

This film is directed by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone, Stray Dog, Down to the Bone) and written by Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini (Winter’s Bone, Down to the Bone). It is based on Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, which is based on a true story of a father and daughter found living in the deep woods near Portland, Oregon.

Leave No Trace has the look and feel of a fable, a narration to explore classic themes of fear and hope, freedom and constriction, parents and children, and how we define “home” and “family.”  Tom is contented and free-spirited in the beginning. As the film concludes, she has the persona of a troubled adult, and Will, who seemed nurturing and strong, may just be too broken.  

The pace of the film is slow, almost leisurely, giving us time to ponder about why Will is so damaged.  He maintains his silence, never sharing  the precise cause of his pain with Tom, the social workers, or the few people who take them under their wings.  It’s up to us to reflect on returning soldiers, the missions they were sent on and how society responds to them on return.  Whether nature can offer solace and safe shelter to those thrust to the margins of society is an open-ended question. 

Director of Photography  Michael McDonough, who was Granik’s cinematographer for Winter’s Bone, skillfully captures the rugged beauty of the rainy Pacific Northwest, showing at times how the outsized trees and abundance of greenery diminish people almost to insignificance.

Composer Dickon Hinchliffe, who scored Winter’s Bone, creates a wonderful musical backdrop in this film.  Says director Granik, “He knows that I love to leave breathing room for viewers to calibrate and decipher their own emotion.”  

Ben Foster, recently in one of my top films, Hell or High Water, reflects, “Although  dealing  with  difficult  circumstances,  this  was  a  very  hopeful  script  about trying to do the right thing - and I hadn’t been reading a lot of scripts that made me feel very hopeful.”

You can catch a glimpse of the film in the trailer: https://youtu.be/_07ktacEGo8

In Albuquerque, “Leave No Trace” opens on Friday, July 13, at the High Ridge Theater 8 and at Cinemark 14 Downtown.

Photo credits:  Scott Green/Bleecker Street

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The lure of "Mountain"

All who are enthralled by the beauty and overwhelming power of mountains are in for a treat with the new film, Mountain (2018, 74 minutes), a documentary artfully directed by Jennifer Peedom and eloquently narrated by Willem Dafoe. The aerial cinematography of Renan Ozturk and other high altitude cinematographers, the writing of Robert Macfarlane and musical collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra  all contribute to the creation of this stunning film.

Mountain reveals the challenges of mountain summits and those drawn to reach  them.  While I know that I am the farthest from a mountain climber as one can be, I am fascinated by those who seek to climb above the clouds.  I love this film.  

It opens with a sole climber heading straight up, bouldering actually (without ropes), and an apt quote:  “Those who dance are considered mad by those who cannot hear the music.”  

What to many appear as acts of insanity draw the viewer in. This climber is brave beyond description, the beauty is awe-inspiring and the stunning cinematography (in this opening shot, I suspect drone videography) takes your breath away.  

The filmmaker not only focuses on the climbers’ ascents and the heights  of the various mountains and peaks around the world. We also see close-up shots of hands reaching to grip seemingly flat rock surfaces, chunks of ice or impenetrable stone, feet searching for footholds and potential perilous drops.  

Peedom notes, “There’s a line in the film: ‘To those who are enthralled by mountains, their wonder is beyond all dispute. To those who are not, their allure is a kind of madness.’ I was really interested in exploring the space between those two points of view and how significantly our feelings towards mountains have changed in such a relatively short period of time.”  Mountain explores ancient fear and awe, then curiosity, then audacious risk-taking and finally the commercialization of these places that still induce awe. 

Three centuries previous, mountains were viewed as homes of gods or monsters.  They were revered or feared but never entered.  As people became clustered in cities, though, nature began to be a draw.  The beauty and challenge of the outdoors brought people to mountains and valleys, into the open air.  Early climbers didn’t attain the heights or have the gear utilized today.  But they relished in the pleasure and the risks of hiking and climbing in unknown and challenging terrain. Film footage and vintage photography of these early adventurers is a delight to see. 

The ultimate draw of Mt. Everest and the urge to conquer it made mountain climbing an obsession. Contrasting the early successes at Everest, though mired by deaths from time to time, more often than not of the sherpas - to the “mountain mania” of today where thousands annually snake up the mountain almost in a crowd  - gives one pause.  What do the mountains mean under these kinds of circumstances?

We also see bike base jumpers, tight rope walkers, skydivers, wing suit flyers, motorcyclists riding thin crests of ridges, daredevil skiers who intentionally ski in front of avalanches.... and all kinds of accidents.  Again, in contrast to these somewhat solo adventurers, there is fast-paced footage of crowded roads, parking lots, lines, ski lifts and slopes filled with countless skiers snaking their way down the mountain.

Mountain displays the joy, fear and rush experienced by these athletes who take on heights in one way or another.  They are humbled by the challenges.  As we watch, we realize how insignificant we are in contrast to nature that took millennia to be created and will be here long after we are all gone.  Watching this adventurous film also humbles us. We not only get to vicariously experience the daring stunts that most likely we would never even consider attempting; we also get an up-close view of parts of this wondrous world that we will never get to see in person.

I have to point out all the incredible locations:  Antarctica, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, France, Greenland, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Scotland, South Africa, Switzerland, Tibet and the USA.  The use of drone videography as well as Go-Pro cameras, helicopter shots and traditional camera work let us join these athletes around the world.

Check out this trailer for a hint of the exquisite beauty of this film.  https://youtu.be/lxtWMOAHoiI   Mountain screens in Albuquerque beginning Thursday, June 15 at the UA High Ridge Theater, 12921 Indian School NE.  Photos courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

"Nostalgia" - a lamentation on loss - opens Friday, March 2nd, in Albuquerque

“Nostalgia “ - a lamentation on loss –
opens Friday, March 2nd, in Albuquerque

“Nostalgia” (2018) explores grief, mementos, and memories in a beautiful thoughtful film.  It is the most recent film of prolific director and producer Mark Pellington (a sampling of his work includes “The Last Word” (2017), “The Mothman Prophesies” (2002), “Arlington Road” (1999), episodes of “Blind Spot” and “Cold Case”, and countless music videos). 

The screenplay of Alex Ross Perry is interpreted with care by a stellar ensemble cast that includes Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn, Catherine Keener, Bruce Dern, Jon Ortiz, and Amber Tamblyn. 

The story moves along at a slow pace, with long takes and a focus on dialogue.  Emotions are portrayed by carefully chosen words and silence, allowing the viewer to concentrate on nuanced facial expressions.  There is a sensibility that this is more of a stage production than a film since the prose spoken is more eloquent than day-to-day conversations we normally hear or engage in.  The camera will on occasion hold shots to the point of discomfort to emphasize the undercurrent of feelings, perhaps a bit overdone now and then.

I like the unusual structure of this film. It begins with insurance man Daniel (John Ortiz) intruding on the acerbic Ronald (Bruce Dern) as he sits in his cluttered house surrounded by dusty books, aged photos, a chess set, and piles of magazines and other household items.  Ronald’s granddaughter wants an evaluation of the worth of his property but isn’t there as it is happening. 

Daniel is bemused by Ronald’s blend of attachment and detachment from his things and their value (or lack of value).  Though Ronald is irritated by the intrusion, he allows the voyeuristic Daniel to take his photo and as Daniel leaves, queries, “Won’t you be coming back?”  He won’t.

Next, Daniel visits the granddaughter (Amber Tamblyn) and while we never learn of why she is alienated from her grandfather, it’s clear that she wants some sort of memento, something that will remind her of the lives lived before her: a diary, photos, perhaps love letters. 

Each character in the film is losing or has lost loved ones and, in the case of Daniel’s next client Helen (Ellyn Burstyn) - her home.  It was burned down and she had just moments to recover some things from inside: a few pieces of heirloom jewelry and an old baseball beloved by her husband.  Not only does Helen grieve the loss of her home. These few saved items resonate with memories of her life with her husband and family. 

As Daniel spends a bit of time with Helen and her neighbors he’s asked what it is like for him to be constantly dealing with losses of others.  His response:  “It never hurts me personally and it never gets old.”  He is strangely attracted to the job, always learning something new about people and their possessions.  But he admits, “Nobody wants to be talking to me. Knowing that makes my job a lot easier.”  Ovitz’s character is intriguing, but we don’t learn much more about him. After he gazes at the bleak burned remains of Ellyn’s house, he mutters, “lives lived” and then fades from the film.

Helen carries the plot on first, as she visits a memorabilia dealer Will (John Hamm), considering whether to part with her husband’s most treasured possession, the baseball.  Then we follow Will as he returns to the family home, meeting his sister Donna (Catherine Keener).  They are preparing to empty out the remaining things since their folks have retired to a Florida condo. 

Each character contemplates what is left behind, how they relate to these mementos and the memories they awaken, and whether there is value in keeping them. An interesting perspective is that of Millennials, portrayed by Donna’s daughter and her friends.  All their memories are captured digitally.  When they pass, will there be any physical mementos to carry on their memories?  

Each story awakens memories in the characters as they look over memorabilia, things that represent feelings, and decide whether to value them.  While the film emphasizes the meaning that people place on possessions and the stories they represent, in the end it is about facing death and what remains behind.  Love. 

“Nostalgia” evokes for me memories of Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” (1972), although that is an entirely different film.  But both have the sensibility of acknowledging the inherent grief and pain in life.  In the end, both question, “What do we leave behind?”  In Bergman’s film, the answer is dark.  “Nostalgia” offers some solace.  The pace of each of these films also allows plenty of time to reflect and impose personal stories and beliefs into these films.  Each film also explores darkness that is faced when one contemplates the questions brought to the foreground by death.

Underscored by original music composed by Laurent Eyquem and various jazz pieces as Will and Donna look over their parents’ vinyl collection, the film overall has a contemplative tone.  Patrick Watson’s “Lighthouse” is a beautifully expressive tune and well chosen for the closing credits.

The pleasing cinematography of Matt Sakatani Roe offers a meaningful backdrop to the loosely connected stories. Shades of blues and greens predominate, signifying to me the juxtaposition of loss and hope. Transitions between scenes are unique, abstract flickering and colorful lines that could be the visions one has while falling asleep as a passenger in a car.  Nature is captured as splendid and at times lush - mighty trees, vast stretches of mountain ranges, sunsets, starry nights, vast open lands - a serene contrast to the raw human emotions.  Perhaps these inclusive shots of the natural world put everything into perspective.

Here is a link to the trailer: https://youtu.be/DRKEHT263gI

“Nostalgia” opens in downtown Albuquerque on March 2nd at Cinemark’s Century 14, 100 Central Ave SE.  You can call (505) 243-9555 for information or check out the website: https://www.cinemark.com/new-mexico/century-14-downtown-albuquerque

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

42 Grams - At What Price, Fame?

Culinary shows abound in films and on television. Chefs are on pedestals.  We watch, fascinated, TV shows like “Top Chef,” Anthony Bourdain on his culinary adventures or films like “Julie & Julia” and “Burnt.”  The story of Jake Bickelhaupt, underground chef, as he and his wife  - Alexa Welsh - create  an outlaw restaurant in their apartment and then move onward, is the story of the documentary “42 Grams” (2017)(82 min.).  

Jake, an experienced and creative chef, opines that chefs don’t know how to cook and criticizes others as robots working on assembly lines, painting by numbers. He, on the other hand, creates something that doesn’t really exist,  unique combinations of ingredients, exquisitely designed and clearly one-of-a-kind.  They start up “Sous Rising,” their home-based restaurant, under the watchful eye of filmmaker Jack C. Newell.  Jake creates and Alexa manages and also serves 15-course tasting menus to the delight of customers lucky enough to know of this place and get a coveted seat.  Alexa remarks: “You’re crazy to think people will pay money to come to your house.” But they do, day after day.  

After 18-months of success, they open a brick-and-mortar restaurant - named 42 Grams - based on the belief that the soul weighs 21 grams and combined, totals 42.  With a rotating number of assistants, Jake creates 3- or 4-bite food items after great reflection and experimentation.  An incredible amount of work goes into planning each tasty creation.  For example, he labors over a dessert with these ingredients:

roasted banana
brown butter crumbles
tamarind gelato (maybe a teaspoonful)
shaved hazelnut
canelé (itself resulting from experimenting with ingredients and cooking   methods)
bubblegum hyssop (a minty plant - I had to look this one up)

Jake passionately creates “a feeling” each time he succeeds in designing a unique food item.  He relishes that he is cooking by combining science and art.  He seeks to find his own voice, “trying to make a new language,” in his words.  He brings on and trains staff, usually just one at a time, but it is a revolving door most likely due to his abrasiveness and occasional short temper.

And what are the results of this intensive focus?  After being open just 10 months, 42 Grams receives the coveted nod from The Michelin Guide,  receiving not just one star, but two, virtually unheard of for a new restaurant.  This two (out of three) star rating is defined as noting “excellent cooking, worth a detour.”    Chicago, at this time, had just 20 one-star restaurants, 3 two-star, and 1 three-star; in fact, in the entire U.S. there were only 18 two-star restaurants then.

The film is written and directed by Jack C. Newell, the Program Director of The Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City Training Center and also co-creator of The Wabash Lights, a light installation on the underside of train tracks in downtown Chicago.  Newell captures an unfiltered look at this complex food genius and his supportive wife and business partner.  The personal strain on each of them and their marriage is evident without being overstated.  During this rise to acclamation, they realize they only have 42 Grams - no friends, no travel, no real marriage.

In the end, is the validation that resulted from the two-star rating worth it?  Is connecting to strangers by producing truly unique food selections fulfilling in a lasting way?   These are the questions with which I was left as I viewed 42 Grams.  This film offers a thoughtful, engaging and compelling look at a unique chef and his partner.  Taking a risk to pursue a dream is always a leap, and 42 Grams allows us to share this journey.

It screens on Saturday, January 27th at 1 PM at The Guild Theater in Nob Hill, 3405 Central Avenue NE Albuquerque, NM.  You can call (505) 255-1848 or check The Guild’s website for more information. http://www.guildcinema.com/   Here is a link to the trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvnm2jRyQR0

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

New Mexican-Shot Film - "Shot Caller" - Opens Friday, Aug. 18th - In Albuquerque


 An ordinary life, albeit one of a wealthy stockbroker, a “money man,” comes to a screeching halt when Jacob  accidentally kills his best friend while driving under the influence.  His life, and that of his family and the victim’s family, is shattered and he enters prison.  His life up to this point has been sheltered, privileged, and far removed from the world of prisons and gangs. 

While in the real world it’s highly unlikely an upper middle-class white man would end up in a maximum security prison for a first time offense, disbelief has to be suspended for the story to work. And it does work.

“Shot Caller” (2017) - directed by Ric Roman Waugh -  opens not with the idyllic life of Jacob (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)(“Game of Thrones”) but with his prison release with a bit of cash, an ID card, and a ride to the station.  This man is hard as nails, tattooed, eyes with a glint of steel. 

The film flashes back to his gilded past, forcefully contrasting it with the harsh and cruel present.  The director’s use of intercuts from the past to the present particularly highlights the acting abilities of Coster-Waldau since Jacob and “Money” (his prison moniker) have distinctly opposite personas.

Will any of Jacob’s humanity return? That’s the question.

In prison, his first lesson is a hard one.  He has to stand up for himself in a milieu dominated by gangs or he’ll be brutalized.   In the yard, he fights someone who bumps him, leading to being thrown in the hole but gaining that curious macho respect one gains by being violent.

Violence incrementally escalates in him when he’s coerced into a drug transaction, then amplifies when he’s ordered to kill someone. He is told, “a place like this forces us to become angels or victims.”  On the outside he was a high-end money-maker. On the inside, he begins the rise to the top.  He has made his choice.

His heart shows briefly when his wife - despite his wishes - brings his son to prison for a visit.  He tells him to stay away.  “Some things just don’t go back together again.”  Alone later, he cries.

Crime as entertainment is not the reality of crime and punishment. It is a way the filmmaker works through mythologies - good and evil, redemption, punishment, life and death, a morality tale, the hero journey.  “Shot Caller” shows the dehumanizing process people go through when thrust into harsh environments filled with desperate people with no hope. While the film visualizes an extreme, the fact is that the prison experience damages people who already are damaged. Utilizing this setting to tell a story acknowledges that reality to an extent, then moves into the mythology to entertain the audience.

(One personal aside, if you will: It would be a better world if Hollywood would donate some of the profits it makes off of crime stories to prison reform and prison re-entry programs).

“Shot Caller,”  like other crime films, brings out in the audience all the contradictory thoughts and feelings we have towards crime.  We empathize with the need for protecting one’s family and oneself and put aside our abhorrence at the violent means to ends portrayed in these films.  We fear crime and criminals yet strangely root for some of them in films and television.  

Walter White is another prime example of how the entertainment industry creates an anti-hero whom we love.  How many people admired him while at precisely the same time were appalled by his expanding sociopathology?

Likewise, this is how we view Jacob / “Money.”  Through his choices, we see his true character, and it’s repulsive.  He is a warrior, a gangster, and once released kills without remorse.   He tells his family once and for all, “It’s over.  Forget I exist.”

Until.... Yes, there is a more than satisfactory twist to the story. 

Most of the other characters are not well-developed with the exception of Omari Hardwick (“Saved,” “Dark Blue”), who plays Jacob’s beleaguered but street-wise parole officer. Again, suspend disbelief because his duties as parole officer go above and beyond those of parole officer in the real world.

Lake Bell (“In A World,” one of my favorites) is underutilized in this film portraying his wife Kate. More of a contrast between who Jacob was and who he became could have been developed had there been more scenes between Jacob and Kate.  Co-stars also include Jon Bernthal (“Sicario”) and Jeffrey Donovan (“Burn Notice”), the latter in a role completely opposite the Michael Weston character.

Ric Roman Waugh wrote, produced, and directed this film. It is the third of a trilogy of his films, “Felon,” and “Snitch” preceding “Shot Caller.”  I commend him for drawing the viewer into the story with compelling action scenes and a different perspective on the crime story.  Cinematographer Dana Gonzales is also to be commended for the stunning visuals that show the claustrophobia of both prisons and the post-prison world where one surrounds oneself with other ex-cons and furtively hides from law enforcement and normalcy.

Filmed in New Mexico in 2015,  this film is opening on August 18th at Icon Cinemas in Albuquerque - located in the Four Hills Shopping Center.  Contact the theater at 505-814-7469 or check out their website for more information. http://albuquerque.iconcinemas.com  “Shot Caller” also opens that date in 17 other U.S. markets and is available as premium video-on-demand.   Here is a link to the trailer:  https://youtu.be/Xm157yQ7g1E

Sources aside from the film:  Press material from Saban Films (including photos), IMDb, Variety Magazine