BEAUTIFUL TALES OF HUMANITY: Cucalorus 23 poignantly portrays life’s inimitable ups and downs

Nov 7 • ARTSY SMARTSY, FEATURE MAIN, FilmNo Comments on BEAUTIFUL TALES OF HUMANITY: Cucalorus 23 poignantly portrays life’s inimitable ups and downs

EVERYONE HAS A PAST: Allan (above) is one of several former inmates who have become culinary artists in ‘Knife Skills.’ Courtesy photo

EVERYONE HAS A PAST: Allan (above) is one of several former inmates who have become culinary artists in ‘Knife Skills.’ Courtesy photo

Knife Skills
Sat., Nov. 11, 4:45 p.m.
CFCC Union Station
Tickets: $15

Any devotee of French cooking will tell you to keep it fresh and keep it simple. Thomas Lennon’s tear-jerking, feel-great documentary about a Cleveland restaurant staffed with ex-inmates follows this recipe. The results are better than a five-star dinner.

In fall 2014, Brandon Edwin Chrostowski launched Edwin’s Leadership and Restaurant Institute in Cleveland  after learning the area has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. Growing up troubled himself—when no one expected him to do anything good; when he barely graduated high school; when he got into trouble with the law—a judge took mercy on him and gave him a break instead of a prison sentence. He was able to turn his life around in the food industry, in which he’s worked all over for Michelin-starred chefs and world-famous restaurateurs. Chrostowski, who speaks baldly and emotionally throughout the film, says, “It was more than a second chance; it was a second life.”

He was in New York when he decided to move to Cleveland and make a real difference in a community that mattered to him. He believes “every human being, regardless of their past, has the right to a fair and equal future,” and his passion and endurance is an inspiration to watch.

Juxtaposing cold, hard prison statistics and recidivism rates with the bustling pace of a restaurant kitchen and culinary classroom, “Knife Skills” is a broad look at Chrostowski’s program. It connects with a handful of individual students, and gives audiences a closer look at their backgrounds and how they got to Edwin’s. Their experiences are all different, of course, but also emblematic; tyhey represent hundreds of thousands of men and women who try daily to find good work and rebuild their lives.

Brandon’s hope, his drive and determination, are the backbone of the film. His own past drives him—and nearly up the wall, at that. He states several times he’s at his best in the restaurant, and anywhere else he cannot breathe—that the uglier people are inside, the better they are at this business, including himself. Daudi, an Edwin’s student who served 10 years in prison for aggravated robbery, echoes this sentiment.

“There is a focus I have that other people don’t,” Daudi explains. ”When you’re an employer that is across the table from an ex-prisoner, the one thing you should know is they have something to prove, and their loyalty level will be higher. They’re dragging around a chip on their shoulder and it’s actually a good thing. [Laughs] So it’s a beautiful thing.”
Daudi’s attitude, Chrostowski’s attitude, applies to many students. Gratitude for second chances, for finally having a place to belong and someone’s belief in them, is repeated often across the film.

In background of this speech are shots of Brandon and Daudi tasting cheese, Brandon giving notes on flavors and balance, milk and each animal’s diet. As Daudi laughs and says, “So it’s a beautiful thing,” we can hear Brandon talking about the animals eating flowers and herbs—how those floral and herbaceous notes come through the cheese.

The symbiosis struck me as a powerful moment in the film—quite representative of clever editing. The filmmaker used imagery and voiceover to show what could have been, and what was. It underlines something poignant, like Daudi’s hope in conjunction with the suggested imagery of the flowers. It demonstrates the chasm between someone’s old neighborhood and where someone might be today.

When looking at documentary, there is more to the equation than just watchability. Audiences have to consider whether something is compelling because the subject is moving, or whether filmmakers use their medium to tell a story. In the case of “Knife Skills,” which I immensely enjoyed, it’s both.

The Definites
Fri., Nov. 10, 7:15 p.m.
Thalian Main
Tickets: $15

“The Definites” opens with hard-drinking “I-never-get-hangovers” ad woman Anna (Hannah Cheesman) on a precipice: She’s about to sign on a house with her long-time, live-in boyfriend Charlie (Kristian Braun), but she definitely doesn’t want to. She leaves him in a parking lot, holding his balls and a bottle of champagne, and sprints away to meet her friends at Art Basel in Miami, ostensibly to let off some steam. But the weekend soon turns into a highly watchable and unexpectedly compelling odyssey to get her shit together, and find out what hole in her messy life she’s trying to fill to the brim with booze and blast with music.

Art Basel, for the uninitiated or uncool kids, is the premier international art fair for contemporary and emerging artists, galleries and collectors held in Basel, Switzerland, Miami Beach and Hong Kong each year. This is Anna’s first time attending. Her cool friend Fitz’s (Michael Seater) parents have some swanky digs in Miami, so there she goes to meet him and their friend, Riley (Sam Coyle)—an artist who has her first show in the fair. They’re all really excited for her, naturally, but clearly jealous.

Riley’s working-artist earnestness is a perfect foil for clever Anna and libertine Fitz, but their perfect triangle is disrupted by the presence of a long-absent and estranged friend, Bernie (Brittany Allen), whose alcohol-averse, gluten-free fussiness is a wet woolen blanket on all their fun. Over the weekend, there is laughter and tears, sex and violence, art and dancing, and a lot of drinks.

The next three days are a rollicking quest, and we are lovingly pulled into the trip, with beautifully fluid camera work, an innovative sound design, and current music. The film deftly expresses exactly how people feel in their late 20s; everything is tender and scary and alluring and bizarre. It takes us to another city, on the wild seas of Miami, with all its beautiful and exotic fish. And the world is their oyster, right? The camera—often moving languidly through scenes at eye- or torso-level—is totally intimate, immediate and immersive. The technique brings us closely into the action, and we’re bamboozled if it isn’t uncannily authentic.

As the opening credits roll, Austra’s “Utopia” plays. It’s a lush and triumphant synth-pop anthem, escapist music fitting of Anna’s MO (and ours, by association) perfectly. Her very first actions, scored by this song, wordlessly acted, express pretty quickly that audiences are witnessing a picaresque. Anna’s trying to escape her life, rein it in, let it out, make something happen. Her journey into Basel is her way to figure out what she needs and where to go next.

If Anna’s on an odyssey, and her body is a ship, her choice of fuel is booze and drugs. Like Odysseus, she’s careening around with a destination in mind (relief from herself, most likely), meeting sirens (the music) and monsters (her addictions) and mirages (men) along the way. Over and over again, the film dissolves into music and movement, as Anna steers her way from one episode into another. Her friends keep telling her to “get your shit together,” and those words slowly slip in with the music. She listens; eventually, things do start to happen. Encounters she thought would go one place go on another course entirely, and we are here for it as we witness her slow arc back to reality—her arrival back on dry land. Each bout of drinking or dancing or drama fleshes out Anna’s story, and we see her choose differently and try a new direction. It’s tender and entertaining and relatable, a journey we’ve all taken—maybe a few times, exuberantly scored. And don’t we all move to music in our own minds?

20 Weeks
Sat., Nov. 11, 1:15 p.m.
Thalian Main
Tickets: $15

Every relationship has its anniversaries, special dates and unforgettable milestones. These landmark moments color everything before and after, dip-dying the delicate silks of memory and fragile eggs of future plans with a shade that deconstructs and reconstructs, and nothing is ever the same again.

Leena Pendharkar’s “20 Weeks” begins as a study of a relationship but evolves into a story about a woman, biology, equality, and expectation, cowardice and bravery. In a remarkably understated performance, Anna Margaret Hollyman portrays an ordinary woman who faces the betrayal of her own body.

Told in painterly compositions and rich, muted colors, with clever editing that slips audiences vertiginously back and forth in time and space, “20 Weeks” explores such an event: a narrow and deep portrait of expectation and grief between a couple halfway through their first pregnancy. Maya (Hollyman) and Ronin (Amir Arison) are in love, but they haven’t been together for very long before Maya discovers she’s pregnant. Ronin—who told her during the salad days of their relationship that not wanting kids is a dealbreaker—is cautiously thrilled, while Maya, ambivalent about all things baby, is less so. In fact, she’s so upset about the pregnancy she schedules an abortion. However, she reconsiders when Ronin proposes to her outside Planned Parenthood, and promises he will be there for her and the baby, through the pregnancy and babyhood, childhood, and beyond. She’s unhappy and scared, but Ronin’s exuberance and steadfastness convinces her to keep the child.

At 20 weeks, the halfway point of a pregnancy, they go in for some routine prenatal care. During the ultrasound, the tech finds an anomaly, one that could indicate anything from a superficial deformity to a serious disorder. The scene is so brutal, the hushed tones of the doctors and the couple’s un-uttered questions, their silence as they numbly acquiesce to more tests, are deafening. Even with an amniocentesis, there are still possibilities of problems that cannot be diagnosed until birth. Devastated, Maya and Ronin have nothing to do but go home, digest the shock, and wait … and wait. They still have options: Their home state of California’s less restrictive laws allow late-term abortions to be performed under this kind of circumstance.

At this point, a procedure to end the pregnancy seems like the most reasonable decision: Maya never wanted the baby to begin with. Maybe they can get married and take their time, try again later. When her writing career has taken off. When they’re more settled as a couple.

They can still live happily ever after.

But 20 weeks proves to be their relationship’s turning point, as well as the pregnancy’s. The next day Maya surprises Ronin with her optimistic attitude, a real desire to keep the baby, a belief the worst will not come, that they and their new little one will endure, and prevail. Ronin, however, is totally flipped. His passion to be a parent is completely doused by this watershed moment. And he—and their bond—begin to break down.

Because of constant shifts in time and space, we never know where we will land as we navigate through the story with Maya and Ronin, and the anxiety it produces is like a fourth person in the room. We see how it ends, and then we’re right back in the middle, left wondering in what shape we’ll find them again, and how we’ll finally leave them.

Throughout the dizzying course of the film, though, we witness another Maya begin to emerge. As the irritant inside her reluctant body becomes a part of her, we watch as she shifts to accommodate a secret, spinning pearl, while sloughing off her fear and discomfort, the person she used to be, and the person she thought she was going to become. The evolution is genuinely affecting, a fascinating process, tender and unmissable.

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