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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

“A Quiet Passion” reveals a resounding voice

When Emily Dickinson died, only a few of her poems had been published by a family friend, who had voiced his opinion that women’s writing was inferior to men’s, emitted “through a mist of tears.” When after her death, Emily’s family discovered 40 volumes of nearly 1,800 poems, several volumes of her poetry were published.  Today, of course, she is revered as one of America’s most significant and unique poets.

The film - “A Quiet Passion” (2016) - explores Dickinson’s cloistered family life, giving a glimpse at her strong views on social justice, women’s rights, religion, and family.  Directed by Terence Davies (“House of Mirth,” “The Deep Blue Sea”), this film reveals a strange and driven writer, seeking permission from her father to write, then arising at 3 AM to perfect her craft and tuck most of her work safely away in private books. She is brilliant, independent and occasionally funny, but she also harbors sadness, irony, and a sense of deep alienation.

This rebel is only quiet in the sense that she has limited her life to her family home, rarely venturing out. Her life is parallel to her reclusive, depressed mother’s life, who rarely leaves her bedroom.  But, as said, Dickinson is passionate and now and then loudly expressive about religion (not an atheist, but questioning), slavery, adultery (leading to a loud, angry disagreement with her brother), and truth.

This film has the sensibility of a stage production.  Words are uttered with care, sometimes just murmured. There is no talking over of one person by another. Background distractions are minimal.  Mostly we are inside the Dickinson home, though there are a few forays through lush flower gardens and other outdoor settings.  There is even a moment in a musical theater at the beginning of the film that in retrospect is in sharp contrast with how physically confined Emily’s world becomes.

Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister has created a dream-like mid-19th century New England setting, shot in both Belgium and the Amherst area.  When indoors,  a painterly-like setting is evoked with muted cool colors, light entering through windows or by gas lamps so that the foreground focus on Emily and her family or friends fades gently into darkness.  At times, the camera pans the room, silhouetting family members and displaying opulence and beauty while highlighting the estrangement of Emily as she listens to the goings-on from beyond, hidden in the shadows.

Outdoor shots portray bright sunlit gardens, extravagant gowns, and pastel parasols.  On the other hand, the formality of manners and with rare exceptions subdued expressions of emotion emphasize the contrast between the possibility of truly free and honest behavior and rigid standards of behavior.  Only through her secret writings could Emily express her passionate feelings and questions about life.
Emma Bell as young Emily and Cynthia Nixon as the adult both intuitively portray her brilliance and depth.  With an uncanny resemblance to photos of Emily Dickinson, Nixon also subtly captures nuances of her personality, intelligence, and passion that is tamped down most of the time by social conventions.

Kudos to Terence Davies (who had Nixon in mind as he wrote the script) and the casting department since also superbly well cast are Jennifer Ehle as her loyal sister, Duncan Duff as her complex brother, and Keith Carradine as Emily’s stern but supportive father.

This film opens tomorrow, May 12, in Santa Fe at the Violet Crown Cinema and in Albuquerque on Friday, May 19 at Regal UA High Ridge 8.  Here is a link to the trailer:  https://youtu.be/eKJpx8FYp54

“A Quiet Passion” has been highly acclaimed, chosen as the Modern Masters Selection at the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival and the Official Selection at three recent film festivals, including the 2016 New York Film Festival, the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival, and the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the joys of “A Quiet Passion” is that Emily Dickinson’s poetry washes over us, her words meaningfully interspersed throughout the film. Because “A Quiet Passion” celebrates Dickinson’s life and words, it seems only fitting to conclude this review with a a few of her words.  This is her poem, “Because I could not stop for Death.”

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me – 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – 
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring – 
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – 
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Photo credit: used with permission - Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion. © A Quiet Passion/Hurricane Films/Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Sources:  http://www.musicboxfilms.com/a-quiet-passion-movies-153.php ,  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2392830/combined , https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/because-i-could-not-stop-death-479

Friday, April 28, 2017

To be - or not to be
In Arkansas, there have been 4 executions in 8 days because the Governor didn't want to lose the opportunity to use drugs for lethal injections that were to expire on April 30, 2 days from now. The individual killed last night lurched and jerked and it took a while. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq and the United States have capital punishment. 140 countries nave never had the death penalty, or have abolished it.

Maryland (where I lived most of my life) abolished it in 2013. New Mexico (where I live now) abolished it in 2009. A total of 18 states and DC do not have the death penalty. 

Here is why: (from nodeathpenalty.org, and I am directly quoting from their website).
"Six Reasons to Oppose the Death Penalty
The death penalty is racist.
The death penalty punishes the poor.
The death penalty condemns the innocent to die.
The death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime.
The death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.
The death penalty fails to recognize that guilty people have the potential to change, denying them the opportunity to ever rejoin society."

If you have read all of this, and disagree because people should pay for their crimes, or there must be vengeance, or it gives families of victims peace or resolution or closure, I suggest you read more about it. At the very least, consider that there are innocent people on death row.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Pierre Niney and Paula Beer in Frantz

REVIEW: Frantz subtly reminds of the consequences of war, both redeeming and brutal

Frantz (2016, Germany and France) is a pensive reflection on warfare, loss, revenge, despair, truth, love and forgiveness.  Set at the conclusion of World War I, it opens with a young woman named Anna (Paula Beer) placing flowers at a grave in Quedlinburg, a small German town. She is startled when she sees fresh flowers already there and the next day observes a mysterious stranger crying at the grave.  She’s mourning the loss of her fiancĂ©, Frantz (Anton von Lucke), and soon learns that this French stranger was Frantz’s friend when Frantz was studying in Paris before the war. 

This friend - Adrien (Pierre Niney) - is first rebuffed by Frantz’s family, with whom Anna lives, and despised by the local Germans.  Anna convinces Frantz’s parents to open their hearts to him despite him being French.  Gradually, Adrien becomes beloved by Anna and Frantz's parents, Hans (Ernst Stotzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber), as he recounts his days with Frantz in Paris on various excursions.   In a later scene in a bar, Hans criticizes his German friends who scorn Adrien.  Hans blames himself and all the fathers - French and German - for their sons’ deaths.  They sent them to battle to do their duty, to serve their fatherlands.

When Adrien first speaks of his days in Paris with Frantz, the high contrast black-and-white film shifts into muted colors, then later back to black-and-white as the setting returns to the Hoffmeisters’ home. These shifts happen various times in the film.

Director Francois Ozon and assistant
Director Ozon comments on his blending color into a predominantly black-and-white film: 

“Working in black and white for the first time was an exciting challenge, but it was also heartbreaking, as my natural tendency is to emphasize color and technicolor. It was thus difficult for me to give up color in certain locations and scenes. Especially the scene in nature, where they walk to the lake, which is a reference to German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. So I decided to use color as a dramatic element in flashbacks and certain scenes of lying or happiness, to suggest life bleeding back into this gray period of mourning. As blood runs through veins, color irrigates the black and white of the film.”

As Anna and Adrien become closer, the darkness she sensed initially when he spoke of Manet’s painting of a pale boy with his head thrown back becomes more apparent.  Later, Adrien swims in a nearby lake as Anna watches wistfully. She notices he has a war wound and when asking him about it, he responds, “My only wound is Frantz.”  The foreshadowing leads to the real reason for his gloom, and ultimately he and Anna part as he returns to France and Anna realizes her burden.

The Hoffmeisters are sorry to see him go since his musicality and his demeanor - shy yet stormy - remind them of their son.  Anna holds onto a secret, not wanting to break the hearts of this family.  After she confesses to her priest, he remarks, “What would the truth bring?  Only more pain.  Only more tears.” 

I am reminded of Erich Remarque’s brutal novel, “All Quiet On The Western Front,” as I put my thoughts together about Frantz. The message is the same.  War has savage consequences and in the end it is simply one human being fighting against another human being, with all the complexity, heart, faith, fear and sorrow of his or her opponent.  The consequences ripple outwards and can damage permanently.  Or lead to wisdom.  There is an element of choice in the consequence, as Anna realizes.

Directed by Francois Ozon - who is also known for earlier works such as In The House (2012), Swimming Pool (2003) and 8 Women (2002) -  adapted Frantz from the 1923 film, Broken Lullaby, by Ernst Lubirtsch. 

Nominated for close to two dozen awards, Frantz has won the Spotlight Selection at this year’s Sundance Festival, the Director’s Choice Award for Best Foreign Feature Film at the Sedona International Film Festival, the Best Young Actress Award for Paula Beer at the Venice Film Festival and Best Cinematography at the 42nd Cesar Awards.

The cinematography of Pascal Marti is extraordinary, with sharp shadows, clean lines, bright whites, and scenes evocative of paintings of villages, bars, battlefields and the countryside.   Here is a link to the trailer:  https://youtu.be/oop8_CgSgmo   The film is in German and French with English subtitles.

In New Mexico, this film opens TODAY - Friday, April 14 - at Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA), 1050 Old Pecos Trail Road in Santa Fe (phone: 505.982.1338).  In Albuquerque, it is screening at  Regal UA High Ridge 8, 12921 Indian School Rd NE  (phone: (844) 462-7342).

Sources: IMDB, the Film website:  http://www.musicboxfilms.com/frantz-movies-152.php
Photos are copyrighted.  Jean-Claude Moireau - Foz/Courtesy of Music Box.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

MacLaine’s “Last Word” as a curmudgeon offers some unexpected moments

Harriet (Shirley MacLaine)  is not a happy soul.  She lives alone in a house that exudes wealth and boredom. She is snobby to her staff, always knowing better than them and everyone else for that matter.  A half-hearted suicide attempt lands her in the hospital briefly where she dismisses the doctor’s advice and heads back to her solitude.  

As Harriet skims the paper that next night, she notices an homage to a “beloved teacher” who has died “surrounded by her loved ones,” written by obit writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried).  Harriet decides she needs a legacy before she passes, her “Last Word,” if you will, the title of the film directed by Mark Pellington.

She heads to the newspaper offices and confronts Ann, dismissing her recent obits as flat out lies.  Recently deceased Louis Shenken was “a bitch”  and Eugene Baker sang all the time because he was “a drunk,”  but Ann’s obits make them look magnificent.  

Harriet browbeats Ann into working for her so she’ll get her own brilliant write-up.  She wants the four elements of a good obit: a great headline, loved by family, admired by co-workers, and having touched someone’s life unexpectedly (preferably a “minority” or “a cripple” - her words).

Predictably, none of these elements exist as Ann does her research, but Harriet won’t go away quietly, and when Harriet goes to a center for at-risk kids and picks out precocious and somewhat vulgar Brenda (AnnJewell Lee Dixon) as her do-gooder project, Brenda quips that she must be doing community service for drunk driving like other white folks who show up there.

What is unexpected is Harriet’s love of vinyl and her ability to talk herself into a DJ job. That foray gives this film distinction and broadens the stereotypes.  

Of course, the ice thaws between Brenda, Ann and Harriet and this motley crew goes on a road trip, complete with a not-so-nice luncheon with Harriet’s estranged daughter (Anne Heche) and a hike in the night woods complete with a jump in a lake (sort of). In the end this buddy film leaves the viewer with a warm and fuzzy glow.

Says director Pellington about Harriet:  “She’s showing Anne and Brenda—and herself—what kind of life that she wants to lead,” notes Pellington. “She is encouraging them to figure that out for themselves. Open yourself up. Don’t be afraid to fail. … She takes what could be sentimental, greeting-card life lessons and makes them completely human and grounded.” 

What stands out to me about veteran actor MacLaine is how nuanced her acting is: just a slight lift of an eyebrow, turn of the corner of her mouth, a shift in her posture speaks volumes.  While I love her earlier films much more (especially “The Apartment” (1960) and “Terms of Endearment” (1980)) - I’m always happy to see her still shining brightly.  More films are in the works according to IMDb.  Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXMP4ptVdKI

the film

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

America has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners.

Since the 1980s, seven times as many people are now behind bars.

For African American males without a high school diploma, around 80% will end up in jail or prison. Why aren’t the alternatives chosen more often: drug court, mental health treatment, house arrest, community service, restorative justice, close supervision by parole and probation, halfway houses, fines, restitution?

These facts alone should provoke thought. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) explores these disturbing truths in her eye-opener documentary, “13TH” (2016, 100 minutes).

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature for an Oscar, it is a film that compels the viewer to dig deep and realize why there is a connection between mass incarceration and poverty, and in particular why the impact is so forceful on people of color.

Many of you know that I rode my bicycle from Albuquerque to Baltimore to raise awareness of the value of re-entry programs and how they reduce crime, benefit families and result in of course fewer crime victims. They also save the taxpayers so much money since programs cost around $20,000 a year on average and incarceration is more in the $80,000 range (and much higher for federal prisons and facilities for juveniles).

I’m still working on this issue, and one way is to encourage you to see this film. It’s on Netflix and from time to time is screened in local theaters around the country, often in the film festival context. Perhaps after the Oscars, it will find a larger audience.

“13TH” explores the link between slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment and today’s massive system of incarceration. DuVernay has succinctly pieced together historical events, archival news footage and imagery along with expert opinions establishing an unexpected link: the link between an amendment intended to guarantee freedom and the utter lack of free movement of those incarcerated.

I winced as I watched the deconstruction of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation.” Filled with disturbing and terrifying images of black men, the film predicted the rise of racism, injustice, the torture and death of people like Emmett Til and Medgar Evers and the lack of balance in the criminal justice system when race and poverty are factored in.

Post-civil war freedom came with a price: more incarceration for petty matters requiring involuntary servitude identical to slave conditions, restrictions on voting, the rise of the KKK just as the black middle class was gaining strength and the demonizing of African American males. The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the early civil rights movement leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the later so-called wars on crime and drugs, including Clinton’s promotion of Three Strikes laws and mandatory sentencing, are all connected in this film to the end result: mass incarceration.

Think about this: why were penalties for possessing and dealing crack so much more severe than the same for cocaine until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010?

When states and the federal government turn over to for-profit companies the detention and monitoring of inmates and former offenders, are there any “for profit” incentives for those businesses to ensure successful re-entries and reduce recidivism? This documentary explains what ALEC is and shows its influence on lawmakers that results in increased incarceration and corporate earnings rising at the same time.

Contemporary opinions are sought from many, including U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, New Gingrich, professor Henry Louis Gates, Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist, professor and political activist Angela Davis, civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander and writer (“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”) and others.

It is beyond chilling just hearing the words of George Zimmerman when he calls the police about teenager Trayvon Martin, heading home after buying candy: “He’s got his hand in his waistband….and he’s a black male.”

Ponder all of the meaning and the consequences of this mindset.  Wonder why we still are not having open, honest discussions about race.

Here’s a link to the trailer. https://youtu.be/V66F3WU2CKk

Sources: Next America: Criminal Justice Project, IMDb, “13TH”