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.

Army of the Dead

17 May

‘Army of the Dead’: We’re off to a Las Vegas heist, but technically it’s impossible to make a killing

By Tom MeekThursday, May 13, 2021

Zach Snyder, the man behind the cinematic resurrection of Superman and the launch of the “Justice League” franchise, cut his teeth on zombie fare with the 2004 remake of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead.” One of the eye-popping twists in that update was that the undead weren’t your typical shamblers – they could move at superhuman speed, and had agility and much greater strength than the sagging bags of carrion in films that came before. In his new “Army of the Dead,” Snyder delves back into that bag of tricks, and in the process turns the Vegas strip into a hive of hidden horrors akin to the hellacious labyrinths plumbed in the “Resident Evil” series.

The film opens with a military convoy taking an asset to a secret location in the Nevada desert. As happenstance and an act of fellatio have it, the package – an alien-zombie incarnation that seems like an escapee from John Carpenter’s 2001 “Ghosts of Mars” – gets loose and turns Sin City into a zombie colony. Though it’s walled off by the U.S. Army, efforts to clean and reclaim the Strip fail and nuking it gets a stamp of approval. In that week before the drop, a wealthy mogul named Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches former military ops hero Ward (Dave Bautista), now slinging burgers, to assemble a team for a mission to fetch $200 million sitting in a vault that only Tanaka has the blueprints for. Ward is doubly invested in the grab and go, as his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), is working at a camp outside Vegas where people assumed to be infected live in military-monitored migrant camps. 

From there “Army of the Dead” proceeds in a pretty straight-up fashion: Navigate the flesh-chomping hordes, a zombified Siegfried & Roy tiger and the zombie king (that alien) and his queen, get the cash, grab Kate and chopper out before the area becomes a mushroom cloud. Kinda like a video game, and likewise solid if predictable genre fun. 

Of the colorful recruits, the standouts are mostly Omari Hardwick (“Sorry to Bother You”) as the heady Vanderohe and Tig Notaro, bringing a dash of Jane Lynch comedic relief to the mayhem as the capable chopper pilot. The film’s best parts are that opening scene and the elongated credit sequence chronicling the fall of Vegas as a quirky cover version of “Viva Las Vegas” plays. I’m not sure if Snyder was reaching for something deeper with a zombie king and queen and the seeming foundation of a zombie civilization – they do seem to communicate and have lawful order. It adds a dash of intrigue and of course allows for the assemblage of the entity of the title. In it all, you know there’s a few hidden agendas (think “Alien”) and aptly at one point, The Cranberries’ “Zombie” rolls; it feels like a too obvious choice, like “Viva Las Vegas,” but they both fit poetically as flesh is ripped from bone by tenacious cannibalistic maws.

Weed & Wine

17 May

Comparing cultures in her doc ‘Weed & Wine,’ Cambridgeport’s Cohen found the relationship

By Tom MeekThursday, May 13, 2021

Cambridgeport director and producer Rebecca Richman Cohen presents her documentary “Weed & Wine” on Saturday as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston. (Photo: Weed & Wine)

The bridge between law and documentary filmmaking has strong precedent in the Boston area. Cantabrigian Frederick Wiseman, whose filmmaking style is pretty much the embodiment of cinéma vérité, was teaching law at Boston University when he set off to make “Titicut Follies” in 1967; Mary Mazzio was working as an attorney at Boston’s Brown Rudnick when she decided to go to film school and make socially conscious films (“A Most Beautiful Thing,” “Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon”). This week, the virtual run of Independent Film Festival Boston brings focus to Cambridgeport filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen, who graduated Harvard Law School and now lectures there. On Saturday, the IFFB will screen her third documentary “Weed & Wine.”

Cohen, like Wiseman and Mazzio, is driven by the human side of her subjects. The continent-spanning film that details two families, the land they work, the challenges they face and the tradition of agriculture across generations began as a late-night conversation about terroir in a Parisian wine bar. Cohen describes the French-originated concept of terroir as “the way the land expresses itself in agricultural produce and the history and tradition of that land.” On the rooting of the project, Cohen says, “I woke up the next morning and still thought it was a great idea.”

One of the challenges in making the film was finding a French vigneron family to partake; many found the juxtaposition of wine grape growing and cannabis agriculture off-putting. “People kept telling me I was comparing apples and oranges,” Cohen said via Zoom, “but in the end, it was about family.” Ultimately Cohen gathered with the Jodreys in Humboldt County, California, and the Thibons of France’s Rhone Valley. The patriarch of that Californian cannabis farm, Kev Jodrey, is a New England transplant (you can hear a trace of it in his accent) and has been growing his product outside legal boundaries for years. The Thibons, on the other hand, have been tending to the same vineyards for hundred of years.

Cohen fell into filmmaking by happenstance while attending Brown University. “I got a job as an assistant editor when I was studying aboard in college, because I couldn’t figure out what else to do. Then I got hooked. After college, I worked for Michael Moore as an assistant editor on ‘Fahrenheit 9/11.’” Cohen’s other documentary features include “War Don Don” (2010), which puts the Serra Leone justice system under a microscope, and “The Code of the West” (2012), which looks at medical marijuana growers in Montana as regulations and policies are reevaluated.

French vintner Hélène Thibon in “Weed & Wine.”

Cannabis farmer Kevin Jodrey in “Weed & Wine.”

Before making “War Don Don,” Cohen had been in Serra Leone using her legal knowledge in a humanitarian capacity. “I’m not an attorney,” Cohen points out quickly. “I’ve never taken the bar.” The subjects she lectures on, human rights and humanitarianism as told through the lens of documentary films, and using video and media as evidence and advocacy, seem to meld seamlessly with her social focus behind the camera.

It took nearly five years to make “Weed & Wine” since Cohen imbibed the idea in that wine bar. One of the realizations the filmmaker had along the way was that her thesis about land focus shifted some, becoming more about those using the land and their kinship to it and each other. Cohen said that sense of family and community became increasingly meaningful to her because during the filmmaking process she became pregnant and had a child. “A total pandemic child,” she says of her 15-month-old.

Covid delayed the release of “Weed & Wine” for nearly a year. Cohen had imagined that the Jodreys and Thibons would meet in person at the premiere or a festival screening; instead that happened by Zoom, Cohen says with a tang of sadness. “But the funny thing is,” she says, “is what do you think was the first thing they talked about? The weather. What else do farmers talk about?”

One of Cohen’s key cinematic influences is “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Cambridge filmmaker Errol Morris’ 1997 documentary about a lion tamer, a robotics expert, a topiary gardener and a specialist in naked mole rats. Interestingly too, one could argue that Morris has a link to law; before coming to filmmaking he was a private investigator, a skill that helped mightily when digging into the gunning down of a Texas police office in “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), a film that helped get an innocent man out of jail. What resonated with Cohen about Morris’ film was the juxtaposition of diverse endeavors and the common themes that linked the subjects. “It’s kind of a bit like what we did with ‘Weed & Wine,’” Cohen says.

Cohen wants to next examine mass incarceration in conjunction with such social movements as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. One thing Cohen was adamant about during our interview was that film is a collaborative process, mentioning that the film would not have been possible without her committed team of producers and crew – and the final product is impressive in terms of production values and synergy. Screenings of “Weed & Wine” will be accompanied by a prerecorded Q&A.

Wrath of Man

9 May

‘Wrath of Man’: Ritchie and Statham reunited, heist with their own petard and angry about it

By Tom MeekFriday, May 7, 2021

Guy Ritchie launched a lot of careers back in 1998 when he churned out the quirky crime drama “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” one being his own as an auteur of hyper-stylized violence in 3D slo-mo – something the Wachowskis would seize upon and elevate to an art form the following year with “The Matrix.” Menacing footballer turned actor Vinnie Jones is another; taciturn can-do strongman Jason Statham may have cut the biggest swath. Ritchie and Statham haven’t worked together since 2005’s “Revolver”: In between Statham had his hit “Transporter” series and joined the “Fast & Furious” franchise, while Ritchie made the live-action “Aladdin” (2019) and the tepid Sherlock films with Robert Downey Jr. Last year’s release of “The Gentlemen” signaled something of a return to form for Ritchie, even if the film couldn’t rise above its own self-aggrandizing cheekiness.

The pair’s latest collaboration is more of a straight-ahead Statham revenge flick like “Parker” or “Homefront” (both 2013) than an amped-up Guy Ritchie production – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Here in “Wrath of Man,” Statham plays H, a mysterious sort who barely shoots or drives well enough to make it as a guard with an armored car company that’s been targeted by a ring of thieves. What Ritchie and his phalanx of writers have cooked up is something like Steven Soderbergh’s “The Underneath” or Michael Mann’s indelibly furious “Heat,” both made in 1995 and about armored car heists.

To be certain, “Wrath of Man” is not on par with either. It’s not even close. But it does have its merits. The back-and-forth narrative between a heist in the recent past and one about to go down deepens the intrigue, as does a “Rashomon,” multi-angle view of a singular event, and there’s a score by Christopher Benstead that bristles with a sense of foreboding and goes far in defining the atmosphere and driving the action. The main reason to see “Wrath of Man,” however, is to see Statham’s enigmatic antihero with a hidden agenda do what he does best, and that’s pick apart those evading justice with cold, calculating efficiency. If you’re here for anything else, that’s on you. Also in the vast cast we get Holt McCallany, so good in David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” series, as Bullet, H’s higher-up; Josh Hartnett in an odd turn as Boy Sweat Dave, the armored car company’s big mouth who shuts down under fire; Ritchie regular Eddie Marsan as the company bean counter; and Scott Eastwood and Jeffrey Donovan as well-organized jarheads on the opposite side of the bulletproof glass from H.

“Wrath of Man” gets better as it goes on, something that can’t be said for “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse,” a similarly straight-up revenge flick released last week. It’s doesn’t have the big production values of that Michael B. Jordan vehicle, but it does have Statham’s no-nonsense avenger, and that’s good enough to make it the better choice to waste two hours of your day on.

Gunda

9 May

‘Gunda’: Intimate portrait of a pig on a farm, lingering images you’ll never want to leave

By Tom MeekFriday, May 7, 2021

Viktor Kosakovskiy might be one of the most engrossing filmmakers you’ve never heard of. Part of that’s likely because he’s a documentary filmmaker – and those documentaries are about unassuming subjects such as water, or a sow on a Norwegian farm. That 2018 work about humans’ dance with water, “Aquarela,” was a stunning achievement in “how did they get those shots” videography, made even more compelling by deft editing and a driving score. His latest, about the pig named in the title “Gunda,” is equally captivating, even if the perilous power of Mother Nature’s wrath doesn’t loom in every scene.

Shot in deeply layered black and white, “Gunda” follows the seasonal cycle of a sow on a farm, birthing a liter of piglets and rearing them from pink (I know it’s black and white, but bear with me) and squirming, endlessly suckling little oinkers. Throughout the film, shot in long, lingering takes that turn the mundane into a riveting, can’t-turn-away event, we never see a farmer – or any human, for that matter. We see the wheels of a tractor, but for the most part it’s just Gunda and her brood, who seem to have free range of the farm and surrounding forest; we occasionally meet some barnyard friends in Mr. Duck, Mrs. Moo, her bestie, and a one-legged chicken, among the many. It’s “Charlotte’s Web” or “Babe” (1995) sans the anthropomorphic cuteness.

How Kosakovskiy gets at the heart of his subject and makes us feel – and we do feel, if not take on Gunda’s maternal instincts as if we were there caring for her cute brood – clearly has much to do with patience and composition. No one would equate the Russian-born auteur to the great Frederick Wiseman, whose hands-off, fly-on-the-wall style is pretty much the definition of cinéma vérité; but the long takes and observation of rhythms and beats of life, drunk in and deeply felt, are poetically similar, even though the filmmakers’ subjects and effect remain vastly different. “Gunda,” like “Aquarela,” is best seen on the big screen for its masterful cinematography’s attention to framing, depth of field and shadows.

How “Gunda” moves in the final act will come as no surprise, but should give you a bit more pause the next time you’re debating soy or pork bacon for your BLT.

Turkeys take over Harvard Square

1 May

Turkeys take over Harvard Square traffic island, prime real estate amid top shopping and dining

By Tom MeekThursday, April 29, 2021

The turkeys that have made themselves at home on a traffic island in Harvard Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

There are fewer students hanging out in Harvard Square, but in their stead is a trio known on social media as Larry, Moe and Curley Joe – or as Dewey, Cheatem & Howe, or Tom Sr., Tom Jr. and Tom III: Three turkeys now at home for three weeks on the traffic island at Massachusetts Avenue and Harvard Street, across from the Hong Kong and Grafton Street eateries.

The trio looks to be two toms (mature males) and a perhaps very young jake (immature male) or hen. Toms are easy to tell by their size and majestic splay of tail feathers, as well as the telltale blue-white head coloring, turkey beard – the tuft of a hair jutting from the breast – and big red wattle dangling from the chin, which is both a display piece to attract mates and a sweat gland because turkeys, like dogs, don’t sweat.

The birds seem happy to just hang out on the 30-foot triangle mid-triangle. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The birds seem happy to just hang out on the 30-foot triangle, with the dominant male puffing to make a threatening display as he swaggers over to any gawker who gets too close to his mates. April is the middle of turkey mating season, and males can get aggressive. Last year in Somerville, a turkey known as Mayor Turkatone was euthanized after too many attacks on humans, called the fault of people who kept feeding him. The city and state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife implore residents not to, but also to not let them intimidate you – while staying aware that their claws are sharp and strong.

Besides digging in gardens and gobbling ghoulishly from roosts that are often overhead – they can fly but not very well – turkeys’ biggest impact on city dwellers is blocking traffic with their too-leisurely saunters across streets. Folks snapping pictures just add to the spectacle and delay. (Though one of those might be Brookline photographer Aynsley Floyd, who’s working on a “Turkey Town” documentary about the challenges of living with wild turkeys.)

Turkeys, seen as a symbol of old New England, were largely extinct here 50 years ago, when conservationists decided to capture some of the birds from upstate New York and rewild them here in the 1970s. The demise of small farms and deep eradication of apex predators (catamounts and wolves, coyotes and foxes – now making a comeback as well) helped their resurgence, with between between 30,000 and 35,000 estimated statewide; in recent years they’ve been all but ubiquitous, though neither Animal Control nor state wildlife experts would guess how many turkeys live in Cambridge.

“Anyone who says they know how many turkeys there are in any town in Massachusetts, let alone Cambridge, is selling you a story,” said biologist David Scarpitti, of MassWildlife. “The number is really not important. What is important is how the density and abundance of turkeys affects residents and their position relative to what we call ‘cultural carrying capacity.’ What this means is how many turkeys are people willing to deal with before it becomes a nuisance and undesirable.”

Limbo

1 May

‘Limbo’: Waiting for their new lives to start, immigrants to a land drenched in the droll

By Tom MeekFriday, April 30, 2021

Before he got behind the lens of a camera, Ben Sharrock was a humanitarian aide in an Afghan refugee camp and also in Syria, which gives the writer/director plenty of real-life knowledge to put behind the story of refugees desperately seeking asylum from western counties. That in-between – the not knowing if you’re going back to a war-torn hellhole or about to begin a promising new life – is the situational sweet spot that Sharrock’s film embraces.

For such a serious subject matter, “Limbo” is remarkably droll and witty. The drama unfolds on a fictional Scottish island where young men from Afghanistan, Syria and several African nations attend acclimation classes in a one-room schoolhouse. The adult education leaders (Kenneth Collard as Boris and Sidse Babett Knudsen as Helga) have the devilishly pleasing tang of Benny Hill to them. The main protagonist, Omar (Amir El-Masry), newly arrived from Syria with little but his grandfather’s oud – a zither-like Middle Eastern string instrument – has dreams of making it as a performer. In fact, the whole mini-community is a colony of dreamers; several state  their goal to become star futbol players, as Boris and Helga nod politely and continue on with trainings on how to conduct a phone query for cleaning jobs. 

The island itself plays a pivotal role: There’s no cellphone reception (old school pay phones substitute) and the rock is so remote it’s often sealed off by gales and sleet storms – the framing of which by Nick Cooke gives the island a fairy tale wonderment. It’s a more rapturous capturing of Mother Nature and wide vistas than Joshua James Richards’ impressive work in “Nomadland.”

Overall, “Limbo” bristles with an existential posturing that never quite goes deep enough for it to pay off. Omar’s airy dreams and past situation (the flashbacks to Syria pull you out some) are counterbalanced with absurdist black comedy. It doesn’t always gel, but it does intrigue, and Sharrock and crew are best when pushing tropes. Omar’s flatmate Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghan expat and lover of all things Freddie Mercury, sports the telltale mustache of his musical idol. They even name chicken after the Queen frontman, and for entertainment watch episode of “Friends” off DVDs. They live a mashup of cultural cross threading, with unknown futures.