Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

18 Jul

‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’ provides a tasting menu of takes on the late chef

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 15, 2021

Anthony Bourdain stars in Morgan Neville’s documentary, ROADRUNNER, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of CNN / Focus Features

It’s uncanny how alive Anthony Bourdain appears in Morgan Neville’s documentary about the celebrity chef, raconteur and intrepid traveler, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” Not because it’s good to see his familiar, avuncular mug grabbing at life with zest and glee, but because of his self-reflective inner probing that feels as if he’s chiming in on his own life and death in the present – something that’s impossible, as Bourdain committed suicide in 2018. Still, his input is eerily prescient.

Neville steers carefully around much of that headline-grabbing act and in doing so raises more questions than answers, which is certain to leave those seeking closure unsatisfied.

With credits including “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018) and the Oscar-winning “20 Feet from Stardom” (2013), Neville does a yeoman’s job of getting us the fast what-to-knows: Bourdain was a heroin addict who early on labored in P-town seafood shacks and rose to fame at the age of 43 with “Kitchen Confidential” (published in 2000), an insider’s tell-all about sex, drugs and egos in the go-go New York City restaurant biz. He struck TV fame with “A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations” and finally “Parts Unknown,” culinary travelogues with the ever-curious Bourdain digging into the culture and politics of destinations close and far away. What many might not know is that Bourdain hardly traveled at all until doing those shows, and later became agoraphobic.

Neville employs a tight fist in curating who chimes in with reflections. Those giving us glimmers include Bourdain’s TV producers, fellow celebrity chefs Éric Ripert, who was with Bourdain in Strasbourg when he died, and a very emotional David Chang. Also in the mix of close friends are artist David Choe and musicians John Lurie and Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age. Then there’s Bourdain’s past relationships. His second wife, Ottavia Busia Bourdain, gets plenty of screen time but offers little to deepen our understanding. Strangely absent is Bourdain’s first wife, Nancy Putkoski, to whom Bourdain was married for 20 years. Asia Argento, Bourdain’s paramour during his final years, appears only in archival footage. As Neville and several talking heads paint it, the Italian actress and filmmaker was a force of chaos on the set of “Parts Unknown” when Bourdain brought in her and renowned cinematographer Christopher Boyle to shoot a few episodes. The film also sets up Argento as the catalyst for his suicide – the Courtney to his Kurt, if you will. While many chime in that Anthony killed Anthony, others say Bourdain was addicted to Argento, and there’s a front page tabloid splash right before his final act revealing Argento holding hands with another man. All of the above is told in a mere whisper, and you wish Argento was given the lens to share her side of the story.

Also missing from the film is Bourdain’s sense of epicurean love and wonderment. The film is slickly crafted and propelled by music, namely the title track by Boston-based Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and some cool ditties by Lurie and Homme. It’s a celebration of life that leaves many parts of its enigmatic subject unknown.

Black Widow

11 Jul

‘Black Widow’: She’s back for one final adventure that also returns Marvel’s universe to big screens

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 8, 2021

Finally the “Black Widow” backstory drops after long being held back because of Covid. It could be subtitled “All in the Family” or “Family Business,” as Black Widow Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has a whole family of super spies with super abilities. Dad Alexei (David Harbour) is something of the USSR’s answer to Captain America, called the Red Guardian back in the day (more on that later); mom (Rachel Weisz, “The Lobster”) has crazy tech and disguise skills; and younger sis Yelena (Florence Pugh, “Midsommar” and “Little Women”) is a fellow widow (more on that later).

The film, directed by Cate Shortland, kicks off in early 1990s Ohio, where the clan is an embedded sleeper cell (with Ever Anderson and Violet McGraw playing the young sisters) akin to the Jennings in “The Americans” TV series. We’re barely understanding who is who when the feds come for them. After a shootout and flight aboard a rickety single-prop plane, they escape to Russian turf, where the sisters are drugged and sent to widow school (think the unenviable ordeal J-Law’s reluctant spy had to undergo in “Red Sparrow”). Turns out there’s something called the Red Room, a sky-high hidden fortress where a guy named Dreykov (played by Ray Winstone) cranks out a widow army and controls them with a drug that compels obedience to all his devious commands. He’s a pretty pat – and thin – heavy in search of a Bond film, but it’s up to Natasha and her fam to take him down. Of course, having li’l sis as one of the operatives under mind control means there’s skin in the game. There’s also some nonsense about a coveted red gaseous antidote and a plot for world domination or destruction; I kinda lost the point, as the last hour of the film is a loud, crash-bang showdown that goes on and on and on.

As far as Marvel fare goes, this one is done by the MCU template – Disney must have an app that cranks out the plot points – and as a result has little at stake. We know Natasha still has Thanos and the “Infinity War” to go, and there are several name drops of her Avenger friends, whom she says she needs to bring back together. Shortland, who showed so much promise with edgy arthouse draws “Somersault” (2004) and “Lore” (2012), connects the dots, but as with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck doing “Captain Marvel” (2019), her intimate indie style is nowhere to be found under an unending stream of bombastic CGI effects. I did appreciate the intricate hairstyles given to the widows, especially Yelena’s neatly nested French braids that seemed almost like an armament in their own right. And Harbour, so good in the recent Steven Soderbergh noir “No Sudden Move,” brings the comic relief in spades. Sure he’s a menace early on, but in the present campaign against Dreykov he’s paunchy and shoehorned into his far-too-tight old red uniform and in constant need of some alpha male ego stroking. He and Pugh’s wisecracking younger widow keep you in the action even as the Russian accents drop and then suddenly return.

Zola

2 Jul

‘Zola’: Stripper showdown in the Sunshine state, increasing in tension with every raunchy tweet

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 1, 2021

Well, here we are, people, the first movie adapted from a tweetstorm. Not an incoherent, three-in-the-morning political shaming from @realdonaldtrump (account suspended) but one from a 19-year-old Detroit server and exotic dancer named A’Ziah “Zola” King, who chronicled her 2015 shitshow of a road trip to Florida after being enticed along by a fellow dancer under false premises. The 148-tweet thread that plays out like “Hustlers” (2019) on steroids, even garnered King an exchange with “Selma” (2014) director Ava DuVernay: “There’s so much untapped talent in the hood,” DuVernay said. Zola’s response: “I’m not from the hood tho Ava. Ima suburban bitch. Still love you tho.”

The real-life King worked at a Hooters. In this stylish, day-glo rendering by Janicza Bravo (episodes of “Dear White People” and “Them”), Zola, played by Taylour Paige, works in a diner and pole dances at night. One day when waiting on an interracial couple, the trashy girlfriend (known as “the white bitch” in the tweet blasts, tagged here as Stefani and animated effusively by Riley Keough) chums up to Zola. “Wanna dance?” she asks casually. Even though we’re in Zola’s head, with her tweets and thoughts coming to us in voice-over, we don’t get much of an inkling as to what the conversation is really about until we land at a male entertainment club.

There’s an immediate bond between the two, as well as a distinct unease that hangs in the air and helps drive the film. For a bigger payday, the two pile into a luxe van with Stefani’s hapless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and roommate X (Colman Domingo, finding his niche) to go dancing in the Sunshine State. Turns out that doesn’t pay so much either, and X is really Stefani’s pimp; this all unbeknownst to Zola and Derrek, who’s left in a raunchy motel to stew.

Zola’s got a beau back home and has boundaries, and even though X menacingly forces her into a call, the film lets Zola steer her way to just helping garner Stefani better johns on certain blacklisted social media sites, upping the dollar value. Stefani’s all too happy to please and seemingly has no boundaries and limitless energy. Her justification, when pushed, is that she has to support a child back home. She also has masterful control over Derrek, who spends the night frantically calling and texting.

Things get increasingly dicey as another pimp circles, X seems ready to explode into violence and Derrek declines emotionally as he wakes to the harsh reality about Stefani he’s buried through denial, puppy dog love and doofus gullibility. Stefani knows just when to throw the dog a bone, though, and Zola is always there to reluctantly watch the carnal play. It’s also here in the middle of the film that the arc really has nowhere else to go. Guns and group sex don’t raise the stakes; the action has crested, and it feels like the filmmaker and writer Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”) – working off King’s tweets – are happy enough to hang it all on the frenemy chemistry of their two leads. I get the why, but it’s not a very satisfying choice in the end.

That said, the two actresses do play off each other brilliantly. Paige (“White Boy Rick”) is the anchor and holds it all well, but the film is really Keough’s. It’s not a big surprise, as the granddaughter of Elvis has landed in similar roles before in Andrea Arnold’s envelope-pushing “American Honey” (2016) and the streaming series “The Girlfriend Experience,” with those notable turns feeling akin to research for this culmination. Looking like one of the robotic beauties from the “Neon Demon” (2016), Keough nails the white-wannabe-from-the-hood vernacular (think a subtler form of Gary Oldman in “True Romance”) and the race differential between the women only adds to the tension.

The important thing to bear in mind is that this is all this based on King’s tweets; in follow-up stories, the “white bitch” known as Jess has said she turned no tricks, and it was Zola who was down for it. Ostensibly trying to give a nod to that, Bravo and Harris switch perspectives to let Stefani share some thoughts with us, but in the end what happened in those bedrooms happened. Since it doesn’t rescript the facts, this comes off as awkward and distracting, though the leads and Bravo’s stylish eye push the film above its narrative deficiencies with 16mm camera work by Ari Wegner – remember the name – that is vibrant and mood setting. “Zola” begins with all the dark, captivating allure of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Neon Demon” and Harmony Korine’s wicked descent into Floridian fun-time hell, “Spring Breakers” (2013). It just doesn’t know how to finish, and simply ends when you think the big turn is just around the next bend. 

F9: The Fast Saga

25 Jun

‘F9: The Fast Saga’ blasts seat-rattling overload with downshifts to a star-studded family drama

By Tom Meek Thursday, June 24, 2021

Less is more, except when it comes to vaccinations, your bank account and movies about jacked dudes driving muscle cars. Hard to believe this living-on-longer-than-it-should franchise about car jockeys doubling as covert agents has made it to “F9: The Fast Saga,” a cheekily oxymoronic title for a series taking on the endurance aspects of Le Mans. It also proves false, as more and more characters and famous mugs are folded into the mix and others are resurrected from chapters that barely made the grade (hello, “Tokyo Drift”). It’s a long drag, lasting more than two hours, that with all its world-hopping feels like the checkered flag is always around the next bend. Even the seat-rattling sensory overload of jittery dash-cam footage, hyperkinetic cutting and all the crash-booms that litter the screen tend to weaken over time. As we should know by now, much of the magic and mayhem is done on green screen, given whoosh and life by an army of CGI coders in Canada, and the ease of turning a key so effortlessly to produce car crash wonderment feels like a cheat. One laments losing the gritty authenticity of old-school stunt work and keen editing of Willam Friedkin’s “The French Connection” (1971) and his day-glo neo-noir “To Live and Die in LA” (1985), real-time car chase capers that will never be replicated – though “Drive” (2011) made a respectable go at it.

It’s not that I had a bad time at “F9,” which puts original “F&F” director Justin Lin back in the driver’s seat, or harbor a serious distaste for the series. I just wish it could be a notch sharper and more entertaining. (And can we please banish the line “Let’s do this” and the like?) The whole ka-bang, kaboom is driven by a MacGuffin: a DNA-coded device called “Aries” that allows its possessor to access and control all computer code in the universe. Russian trolls and Bond villains would literally die for it; here it’s a foppish Euro psycho named Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) and an army of faceless commandos in helmets and black Kevlar suits. On the side of good are heroes such as Dom (Vin Diesel) and Lefty (Michelle Rodriguez), tearing up the streets of old world Europe with retrofitted American classics – being inconspicuous ain’t a thing – to stop Aries from morphing into the mother of all computer viruses.

Diesel’s swagger and Rodriguez’s simmer have always been – and still are – the engine of the franchise, and Diesel’s brooding Dom has a massively clichéd yet winning “Rocky” thing going for him, the secret sauce to solid hack filmmaking. But it’s a perk that Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell and Charlize Theron, who had small yet entertaining parts in past episodes, pop up in small bits (Theron, sporting a modish bowl cut, gets to get her vamp on with a dose of camp), while local guy and WWE sensation John Cena shows up as Dom’s baby bro with a dark past, seemingly revving his engine for the opposite side of justice. On paper, the brotherly rivalry has the trappings of a Shakespearean tragedy; in execution, no matter how hard the filmmakers and actors try, the pathos feels like another green screen trick of the light.

Reaching for new highs, the stunts and FX often lurch into hyperbole – there’s a Pontiac Fiero with a jet rocket strapped to its roof – but that becomes one of the charms of “F9,” which doesn’t take itself too seriously. (That scene in the Fiero with Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris is a good example.) Challenging Lin’s pacing is the ton of backstories that need to be told, the most interesting of which is that of young Dom (Vinnie Bennett, impressive) and his brother’s early woes. The film, however, only really moves at two speeds, and it’s a bit unsettling to go from a quiet reveal to Michael Bay-esque barrages of bombast without any shifting of gears. To that end, “F9,” like a Bay flick, is perfectly packaged box office bait, joyous popcorn junk that should drive folks back to theaters after long Covid shutdowns

Empowerment Mural Coming to the Square

25 Jun

Thaxton’s ‘Beauty of Everyday Living’ mural brightens Harvard Square kiosk construction

By Tom Meek Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Patricia Thaxton’s “The Beauty of Everyday Living” mural sections will beautify a Harvard Square construction site. (Photo: Greg Cook)

The ongoing construction around the old Out of Town News kiosk in Harvard Square will be brightened this week, with unsightly fencing and Jersey barriers wrapped in a vinyl scrim of artist Patricia Thaxton’s “The Beauty of Everyday Living,” a mural imbued with themes of Black joy and empowerment. The design honors Black Harvard students, is peppered with Harvard Square “Easter eggs” and weaves in nods to Cambridge community festivals and recent Black Lives Matter protests.

The mural, commissioned by the city, will expand as work by WES Construction expands in the fall. When the expected two years of construction ends, the renovated public space will have a community focus and is open to use by city-sponsored operators. Requests for proposals are ongoing throughout the rebuild.

A public event introducing the art awaits a clearer schedule from the construction contractor and coordination with the city’s reopening plans, Cambridge Arts’ Greg Cook said.

This is the first public art project for Thaxton, a Stoughton resident who grew up in Dorchester and taught home economics in Boston Public Schools until retiring in 2009. In her art career since, she has focused on mixed media works in which she said “no material is off limits.”

“I love the freedom I have with mixed media collage. Along my journey, I discovered the elements that fascinate me: texture, color and depth connect each work of art in my collection. Several pieces were inspired by images I’ve collected from newspapers, ads, magazines and photos that I’ve taken through the ages. I enjoy capturing the culture within and around our daily lives,” she said.

The Somerville Theatre will be back

25 Jun

Somerville Theatre will bring Davis more music with Crystal Ballroom replacing upstairs screens

By Tom Meek Sunday, June 20, 2021

Frame One is building the Crystal Ballroom at Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The pandemic had its own victims in the film business, with the ShowPlace Icon and the ArcLight – luxe theaters that opened just before the pandemic in the Boston area – shuttered for good. On the upside, the Coolidge Corner Theatre just announced an expansion that includes two new screening rooms and a community space, and all Cambridge theaters have reopened or are about to. So what’s going on with the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square? The Capitol Theatre in Arlington, also owned and run by Frame One Theatres, has been up and running for a few weeks, but the Somerville cine, host to screenings and live performances since 1914, remains ominously dark.

“We’re undergoing renovations and a changeover,” theater manager and newly minted creative director Ian Judge said during a recent visit to the iconic structure. The lobby is in the middle of a refurbishing; the bar is now set back, and the concession and merchandise area has been expanded. That far too “homey” bathroom just off the lobby is getting a much needed makeover. The biggest change is upstairs, where two movie houses are being returned to their original ballroom format.

Ian Judge will oversee the Somerville Theatre cinema and its new performance space. (Photo: Tom Meek)

What that means is that the theater will now host a nearly 500-person-capacity performance hall dedicated to live music, special events and private engagements such as weddings and corporate gatherings. “We had remodeled the downstairs theaters and knew we had to do something with the upstairs,” Judge said. With the pandemic and six screens in Arlington (and potentially two more coming in Harvard Square), Frame One decided it could fill different needs.

The new/old hall has an airy amphitheater-like vibe and a space that could be turned into a cozy bar in the back, with a coatroom to boot. Judge said the room could also be used for special screenings, which is good news for Independent Film Festival Boston, but likely never would be opened as just a public bar. (“I could see us doing something like trivia nights,” Judge said.) The main focus will be booking music acts, something Davis Square has lagged in since the amps went silent at Johnny D’s back in 2016. The space, which was known as the Hobbs Crystal Ballroom back in the day – it’s in the Hobbs Building – will now be the Crystal Ballroom at Somerville Theatre. Its capacity will be far greater than the 300-plus that Johnny D’s seated, just short of the 525-person hall The Sinclair offers in Harvard Square. The main downstairs theater, which has a capacity of almost 900, will continue its mixed-use operation as a cinema and live performance venue. The new configuration will have two entrances for each space.

The Somerville Theatre lobby is getting a touchup as well. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Judge, who had been furloughed for a year, will oversee the cinema and the new ballroom, while longtime staffer Peter Mattchen will take on day-to-day general manager duties. The Crystal Ballroom is expected to open in the early fall; opening for the three movie screens should be mid- to late summer with, Judge said, a new ability to show 4K films and a re-honed focus on 70mm exhibition; the Somerville and Coolidge are two of few theaters in the United States equipped to exhibit the classic, grand format. Frame One’s involvement in a plan for two Harvard Square movie houses (replacing a cinema that went dark in 2012) continues, though the project is stalled.

In the Heights

12 Jun

‘In the Heights’: Movie with a song in its heart

By Tom Meek

Before there was “Hamilton,” the hottest ticket on Broadway in decades, there was “In the Heights,” the musical by “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes about a hot summer tear through the streets of Washington Heights, where music and dreams drive the pulse of the multifaceted Latinx community. Here in the hands of “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) director John M. Chu, that Tony Award-winning play takes on a kinetic yet intimate feel as crowds break into song or have dance or rap-offs.

The script, written by Hudes (the stage musical was based on her book), homes in on two young couples or couples-to-be, or not. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, “Hamilton” and “A Star Is Born”) runs a bodega called Little Dream and has a crush on regular Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, Showtime’s “Vida”), but is apprehensive about making a move on her, as she’s in the process of quitting her beauty salon job to move uptown and become a fashion designer. Usnavi’s Greek chorus of regulars and friends egg him on or console him in the wake of each romantic misfire. More complicated and germane is Nina (Leslie Grace) back home from Stanford, which her dad (Jimmy Smits), a car service repair shop owner, sacrificed so much to send her to. She doesn’t want to return – to tell why would ruin the story, but the reason ushers in a conversation about race and dreamers – and has a burgeoning relationship with Benny (Corey Hawkins, “Straight Outta Compton” and “BlacKKKlansman”), a radio dispatcher at dad’s shop.

For the most part “In the Heights” is a whirlwind of music, dance and emotional undulations, in which dashed opportunities are always left with a modicum of hope. Chu keeps it all clicking along with the snappiness of a “La La Land” (2016), yet the quiet pauses with Nina and her dad and Usnavi (played on stage by Miranda) and his posse have their own interior pulse and reverberations. Zesty and light, yet deep and meaningful, Miranda’s love letter to an immigrant-based community is heartfelt; and with Chu at the controls and a talented cast whose dancing, acting and singing is pitch-perfect all the way through, “in the Heights” is going to move you.

A Quiet Place Part II

31 May

‘A Quiet Place Part II’: After an explosive start, back to a world of even more menacing silence

By Tom MeekFriday, May 28, 2021

Maybe the long-delayed release of John Krasinski’s sequel to his surprise 2018 horror flick hit “A Quiet Place” wasn’t such a bad thing (but yes, Covid, terrible). It gave us more time to distance ourselves from the novelty of human-mauling aliens who can home in on a target only by sound. They were formidable and terrifying then, and are again. “A Quiet Place Part II” opens before the last film did, giving us the cataclysmic landing of the aliens – an ominous, fiery streak across the sky before the first batlike incarnation with a maw full of needlelike teeth chows down on the first denizen of a sleepy upstate enclave. We see familiar faces (Krasinski’s dad, Emily Blunt’s mom and Millicent Simmonds’ daughter) hurrying for shelter and an existence in total silence – one branch crack or a sudden sneeze and you could be lunchmeat.

“Part II” is just as taut and lean as its predecessor. It covers a lot of ground in 90-plus minutes. After a sudden alien invasion that triggers the fall of civilization as we know it, we jump forward to Day 474 since that fireball hit as the Abbotts, or what’s left of them – Evelyn (Blunt), her children Regan (Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), and a newborn baby – are still holed up in an old farmstead. At night, they send up a fire signal that is eventually answered. From there, as in most post-apocalyptic films in which death can strike from a dozen angles, it becomes the duplicitous agendas of lawless people that becomes as lethal as the voracious raptors that lurk, waiting for a too-loud footfall to be an impromptu dinner bell.

There are some nice new additions here: Cillian Murphy as Abbott family friend Emmett (we catch him at a Little League game in that preamble), a grizzled, hirsute loner who’s lost much, and Djimon Hounsou as a fierce father and one of the rare bastions of human compassion. In this chapter too, the kids move to the fore, undertaking quests and protector roles that ease the burden on mom some. The film splits into multiple threads, and a few feel unnecessary, but Krasinski and his team of editors keep it tight and adrenaline-pumping. In a world where silence is more than golden, it’s the only means of life,  big roles are played by elements such as a bear trap, a first-aid kit just out of reach, a vial of much needed antibiotics and a safe room that needs to be opened every five minutes to avoid oxygen starvation. Water and boats do too, but to tell you much more would be to ruin the fun. Simmonds, so good in the last film, again makes the case for future work; and of course Murphy, with those liquid blue eyes piercing through the dirt streaks and matted hair, brings a conflicted soulfulness to his grieving father. As the film ends you know for sure there’s a “Part III” coming. You can almost see it opening with Day 500

Cruella

30 May

‘Cruella’: Villain’s high-fashion origin story proves character isn’t all black-and-white

By Tom MeekWednesday, May 26, 2021

The backstory on Cruella de Vil, the villainess so indelible (that hair!) in Disney’s 60-year-old “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” franchise, is a dark one in the new “Cruella,” a bit more over the line than that of the studio’s “Maleficent” (2014). You could even say that its moody atmosphere and use of raucous era pop makes it feel more like “Joker” (2019) than a family friendly product from the Walt-O-Sphere.

Directed by Craig Gillespie, whose previous – and more dramatic – efforts such as “I, Tonya” (2017) or “The Finest Hours” (2016) don’t really feel like a pathway to a Disney go, competently rekindles a series opportunity here. The original 1961 adaptation of the Dodie Smith tale was the 17th animated film by the then burgeoning Disney empire; later (in the 1990s) there was a live-action take with Glenn Close as the yin-and-yang tressed dog-snatcher. In this prequel, we get a young Cruella/Estella, whose mom is harried by a trio of vicious Dalmatians on the grounds of a grand British estate (something up high and oceanside, akin to Manderley in “Rebecca”) and falls off a cliff, leaving Estella to fend for herself. Down on her luck and short on opportunity, the orphaned Estella falls in with a gang of street kids, grafting and scrapping to get by. Then, poof, some 15 years later in the ’60s/’70s (That soundtrack! The Clash, Supertramp, The Doors and ELO) she’s a cleaning lady (now played by Emma Stone, “La La Land” and “Birdman”) scrubbing the loo at a high-end designer’s boutique studio with the deep-seated goal of making trendy dresses herself. “Cruella,” it turns out, is more about haute fashion than Dalmatians.

The real fun to “Cruella” kicks in when Emma Thompson shows up as a brassy incarnation known as The Baroness, the Anna Wintour of British high society and fashion – anyone arriving at one of her galas with a more eye-grabbing dress than her is promptly escorted off the premises, and none too gently. After an accidental glimmer of Estelle’s talents (a boozy night of ambition rage sets it up) The Baroness rescues Estella from toilet duty and gives her the opportunity to design and create. It’s a happy working union for a moment, until Estella begins to learn of The Baroness’ sordid past and its possible impact on her childhood. To get at the truth, Estella hatches her Cruella alter-ego, with electric black and white shocks embossed by a vampy, Michelle Pfeiffer-esque Catwoman sass-itude. By day, the dour Estella toils under The Baroness’ demands; at night Cruella hosts flash mob fashion shows that steal The Baroness’ thunder, scoring all the critical high-fashion praise in the papers the next day.

It’s here that the game of catty cat-and-mouse between the two (or is that three?) becomes a bit overplayed. The film for the most part is imbued with a kind of dark, Tim Burton fairytale sprightliness, but it gets lost in the back-and-forth and the film sags some where it feels like there should be lift. Stone and Thompson bite deep into their roles and both succeed – especially Thompson – but the kitschy snazziness of caricature is mostly what registers. The film, written by committee, is clearly looking to turn Cruella the villain into something more heroic (which didn’t happen in the “Joker”) and it accomplishes that, if underwhelmingly. One of my favorite touches besides that soundtrack (some may see it as an unnecessary detraction; I didn’t) was Cruella’s pop-up fashion show band riffing Iggy Pop’s “I Want to be Your Dog.”

Bike Lane Impact Report Sends Ripples

22 May

Study of bike lanes showing parking loss alarms, but even bicyclists reject most extreme options

By Tom MeekFriday, May 21, 2021

A bicyclist travels in a protected bike lane in Kendall Square in an image from the city’s MassAve4 Impacts Analysis.

Fallout from a report about quick-build separated bike lanes continued Thursday at a virtual meeting of the Porter Square Neighborhood Association, with concerns from residents and business owners that parking would be eliminated along Massachusetts Avenue north of Cambridge Common.

“The city dropped the worse-case scenario,” said Ruth Ryals, president of the association.

No one at the meeting, bicyclists included, supported the most extreme options from the MassAve4 Impacts Analysis Report that would sacrifice significant amounts of parking along the avenue.

The report, released just in time to beat a May 1 deadline, is a byproduct of the 2020 Cycling Safety Ordinance, which calls for 25 miles of protected bike lanes to be built over the next five to seven years. Massachusetts Avenue is targeted for them as a major route through the city.

The ordinance acknowledges that quick-build bike lanes (defined mainly by flex posts and paint, but still relocating parking spaces, as happened with Cambridge Street) are easier to achieve than construction that involves adding concrete medians and shifting bus wires, which could force changes to the timeline to accommodate logistical challenges.

The city has said the report is not a protected bike-lane proposal, but about their potential effect on parking, but that’s a distinction some found hard to discern in the text. “I read the report and panicked,” Ryals said in her opening comments.

Bicyclists and business owners

Several members of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, the local activist organization that pushed for the ordinance, spoke Thursday, including Rebecca Neuman, Sam Feigenbaum and cofounder Nathanael Fillmore. The positive community and environmental impacts of cyclists and cycling was stressed by Neuman, organizer of a Cambridge Bike Delivery initiative that engages volunteers to deliver food pantry items to community refrigerators in Cambridge and Somerville and to people with limited mobility. Others highlighted cycling deaths in areas with deficient cycling infrastructure – including Amanda Phillips in Inman Square; Bernard “Joe” Lavins in Porter Square; and Darryl Willis in Harvard Square – and shared city-gathered survey results showing that only 20 percent of those responding felt comfortable biking without a protected or separated bike lanes; 70 percent said the lanes would make them feel safer and more likely to take to the street by bike. Feigenbaum, a Harvard Law student, walked the audience through the details of the ordinance.

Fillmore summed up, saying what was illustrated in the report “was too extreme and not necessary,” and walked thorough some possible protected bike lane solutions that would not eliminate parking along the northern stretch of the avenue.

Business owners expressed concern for cyclists’ safety – and began their comments by stating their own use of bicycles and mass transit – but also fear for the economic impact resulting from the study’s findings. “Elimination of parking would be disastrous,” said Jeanne Oster, of the family-run Guitar Stop, opened by her father in the 1960s. Steven Beaucher, of Ward Maps, said if he had no way for people to come in and pick up large maps and the heavy transit signs sold by the store, he’d have to take his business online. He also conceded that losing some parking could be for the greater good.

More agreement than disagreement

Theodora Skeadas, executive director of the Cambridge Local First small-business group, attended the meeting. City councillor Dennis Carlone joined briefly to share his sympathy and concerns for cyclists and local business owners, and pointed out that while the council approves policy such as the cycling ordinance, it does not approve roadway and traffic changes. That work is handled by the city manager and his staff.

The evening meeting showed no signs of the battling among cyclists, residents and business owners seen over bike lane proposals after an initial rapid rollout in 2017. All groups wanted the others to succeed and be safe, and an improved quality of street life and amenities along the avenue. A “road diet” was discussed that including removing some stretches of Massachusetts Avenue median to make room for bike lanes; having the median was called something of a “religious” adherence by long-time residents, but ultimately people at the meeting didn’t consider it vital. Ryals said the avenue still has “that highway feel to it.”

“I came away from the meeting feeling quite positive, since from the discussion it sounded like there are broad areas of alignment between business owners, Porter Square neighbors and bicycle safety advocates – much more agreement than disagreement, in fact,” Fillmore said. He was optimistic roadway changes could be made “in a responsible and technically feasible way that will improve rather than detract from the ability of small businesses to thrive.”

City staff said the next steps would be to determine if quick build lanes are possible, and to provide protected bike lane options for review by the public.