The King of Staten Island

12 Jun

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Funny guy filmmaker Judd Apatow directs funny guy Pete Davidson is “The King of Staten Island,” a semi-autobiographical account of arrested development on the urban isle of the film’s title. Apatow, known for punchy comedic hits such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005) and “Knocked Up” (2007), and Davidson, whose wide-eyed edginess shines on “Saturday Night Live,” dial up one long “finding yourself” dramedy (almost two and a half hours) that’s unfortunately a tad slight on the laughs and way too long on the melodrama.

Davidson plays a version of himself as Scott, a 24-year-old tattoo artist living with mom (Marisa Tomei) and in a friends-with-benefits relationship with his sister’s best friend, Claire (Bel Powley). He won’t be seen in public with her and she wants something more – but slack, stunted dudes always think they have more in their hands than they do. Mostly Scott hangs out with a posse of the similarly rudderless (Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson and Moises Arias) who get high, complain about their stagnant situations with passive zeal and occasionally crack a funny joke. Then one day Scott offers to give a 9-year-old kid named Harold (Luke David Blumm) a tat. The kid taps out at the first squiggle of ink and later that day shows up with his dad (Bill Burr), who wants Scott or his mom to pay for the removal or he’ll call the cops.

Turns out Burr’s Ray is a firefighter (with a “big thick [fill in the blank]” as we’re told by his ex) who knew Scott’s father – a firefighter who died in the line of duty on 911 – and starts to date Scott’s mom. There’s a lot of relationship turns in “The King of Staten Island,” which becomes tedious after the umpteenth miscommunication and overreaction. Davidson’s not as razor like or effective as he is in his short jabs on SNL. Tomei and Burr, however, are quite excellent. Tomei, vulnerable and warm while digging in her heels, and Burr, casting shadows of John Voigt’s macho prison escapee in “Runaway Train,” is affable and complex beyond the script. Powley, so amazing in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” also doesn’t get a lot to work with, but you notice her when she’s onscreen. Apatow’s daughter Maude plays Scott’s antagonistic sister, and real-life firefighter turned “Reservoir Dogs” actor Steve Buscemi plays one of the hose draggers down at Ray’s station.

Da 5 Bloods

12 Jun
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Spike Lee’s latest, “Da 5 Bloods,” was supposed to get a theatrical release, but Covid-19 has changed the rulebook. Lee was also supposed to be a jury member at the Cannes Film Festival last month, but that’s postponed to 2021.

The gorgeously composed film, something of a Vietnam War reconciliation project, is a hot hodgepodge of socially conscious branding wrapped around a treasure quest thriller adorned with reappropriated cultural icons – namely Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” which crops up from time to time, most obviously in the form of a disco four of the five titular “bloods” visit upon their return to the country where they fought some 40 years earlier. “Da 5 Bloods” starts out with some archival imagery of the poetically loquacious Muhammad Ali, politically active blacks taking to the street and iconic clips of savagery from the Vietnam War with voiceover telling us that African Americans make up 11 percent of the population but made up 33 percent of the fighting force, posing the question: “Will history stop repeating itself?”

The “bloods” in question were part of an Army squad, and have reunited to return to ’Nam to gather the remains of a fifth blood (Chadwick Boseman, “Black Panther”) who was killed in action. They know loosely where his body is, as well as a hefty stash of gold bricks. Of the returning four, Delroy Lindo’s Paul stands out the most: He’s a Trump supporter (Lee and Lindo vociferously oppose Trump and his policies, but that’s kind of the point), wears a red MAGA cap throughout and has a prickly relationship with his son David (Jonathan Majors), who’s in tow. What ensues is a strange olio of “Grumpy Old Men” gone up river “Apocalypse Now” style before straying into “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” territory as the loot is also sought by a French opportunist (Jean Reno, “Le Femme Nikita” and “The Professional”) and a faction of Vietnamese nationalists who want to settle an old score with the “bloods.” It’s a lot to unpack as Lee continues to stir in revisionist history and social barbs. It’s a compelling mess that’s almost too rich for its own good, and a better war film (postwar film?) than Lee’s 2008 “Miracle at St. Anna.” Somehow too, Paul Walter Hauser (Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and “Richard Jewell”) makes his way on scene and that MAGA hat, for better or worse, takes on its own persona.

It’s amazing to realize that Lee won his first Oscar only last year, for the “BlacKkKlansman” screenplay. He’s made a lot of films in his time, and not all have stuck their landing; but as a filmmaker, Lee’s always been a risk taker, and one with something to say. At the end of “BlacKkKlansman” Lee stitched in footage of the violent Proud Boy tiki march in Charlottesville; here there’s a “Black Lives Matter” chant with a hopeful flourish. (Lee also just completed the short “3 Brothers: Radio Raheem, Eric Garner and George Floyd,” which should require no explanation.) “Da 5 Bloods” may not be Lee’s finest film, but it comes at the right time.

Shirley

7 Jun

‘Shirley’: Author has plenty of horror to handle, even some to deal out as couple comes to stay

By Tom Meek

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Josephine Decker’s screen adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s “Shirley: A Novel,” is a haunting affair that, while steeped in reality, is highly fictionalized (that tag “A Novel” being a tell). The film catches up with author Shirley Jackson in Bennington, Vermont, in the 1950s, where she’s in a deep depression because her brutally alluring short classic “The Lottery” is found appalling by early readers. It doesn’t help that her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By Your Name,” and so good in the Coen brother’s “A Serious Man”), a literary critic and professor, is too interested in his own career to deal with his wife’s malaise – so what better way to pass the buck and get some me time? Rope in your starving writer teaching assistant and wife as emotional wet nurses by giving the them free room and board in your country manse.

“Shirley” plays fast and loose with dates and events (such as when works were published, and the timeframes of events leading up to them) but that’s okay – what Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins are after is a character study of Jackson, turning her mental anguish into something of a near gothic horror story that Jackson herself might have written (think Ken Russell’s 1986 spin about Lord Byron and Mary Shelly, “Gothic,” and you’d have the right idea). What wins the bold gamble is Elizabeth Moss nailing the author’s weepy depression, her simmering anger against her wayward husband and ultimately, her literary resolve. Moss, who rose from her wallflower persona on “Mad Men” to more full-bodied roles in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and as a punk diva in “Her Smell” (2018), has become something of an icon of Covid-19 streaming in the chasm created by studios holding back products for theatrical releases following the shutdown: This endeavor and Leigh Whannell’s radical reimagining of “The Invisible Man” both went from theater to smaller screens (along with “The Hunt”) without missing a beat. She notches a new level here, and you feel as if this isn’t her topper yet.

A key background element to “Shirley” is the real-life missing Bennington College student Paula Jean Welden and the powerful pull it had on Jackson – the case would became the basis for her novel “Hangsaman.” Then there are the attendants, the newlywed Nemsers, Fred (Logan Lerman, “End of Sentence”) and his pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young, “Assassination Nation”). Whiskey pours at night, as does sexual innuendo. As Rose and Shirley spin off into a strange codependent relationship punctuated by bouts of mania (from pregnancy and depression) and jealously, we also get a good lesson in the misogyny of the time as the two men stay out, carousing and pawing after other women indiscriminately. Overall, in the tightly clustered affair, we’re not too far from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” territory.

Decker’s plumped similar internal anxieties with her 2018 cornerstone, “Madeline’s Madeline” and digs in deeper here, but it’s Moss who carries the film with a moody soulfulness complemented by the ensemble around her. Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is as affable as he is contemptible, and Young holds her own in simmering tense scenes with Moss. It’s a dark, near-real work that bears both fangs and fruit.

Peaceful Protests in Cambridge

7 Jun

 

Protesters gather Sunday in Porter Square after a renewed spate of nationwide deaths of people of color at the hands of police. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Around 200 residents assembled along Massachusetts Avenue in Porter Square on Sunday to protest police brutality and ask for justice in the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis – and in countless other blue-on-black incidents nationwide. The video of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of Floyd has sparked protests across the country, many turning violent as people join with uncertain motives and police respond.

Update from June 3, 2020: Police officers estimate that the protest “maxed out with about 100 participants,” according to Jeremy Warnick, director of communications and media relations for Cambridge police.

Curfews have been imposed in 40 cities; the National Guard has been called to 15. Social media is pulsing with videos of looting and police violence.

Not in Cambridge, though.

Chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these racist cops have got to go,” and “No justice, no peace,” filled the area as cars drove by, honking in support. Signs demanding justice and the end of police brutality joined a sea of “Black Lives Matter” placards.

The protest, organized by North Cambridge attorney Gerry McDonough through social media, was peaceful and without incident. McDonough, launching an activist group Stand Out Against Racism, or Soar, said the day’s event was one of many to come. At the rally portion of the event, he announced a day of action slated for Saturday, when smaller groups in neighborhoods would stage similar protests.

Luis Cotto, Mercedes Soto and Ángel Cotto pause after creating a chalk memorial on the steps of City Hall. (Photo: Luis Cotto via Instagram)

Other signs of protest popped up around the city, from a “BLM” tag for the Black Lives Matter movement spray painted on a building at Kirkland and Beacon streets to the names of people of color slain by police chalked on the steps of City Hall. The names stretched back at least as far as Amadou Diallo, killed in New York in 1999.  

One of the concerns of protests and demonstrations in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic is public safety and social distancing. All demonstrators present wore masks, but a 6-foot rule was rarely achieved.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said Saturday that she was planning an online vigil. “Facilitating a community healing process will be one of our most important jobs as elected officials, so we can collectively address the pain of this pandemic, the pain of this moment and the generational pain many of us carry in our bodies every day,” she said via social media.

Plans for the vigil, made public over the weekend, have it taking place from 5 to 5:30 p.m. Monday on cable Channel 22 and via Facebook Live. Details are here.

“Like many of you, I am navigating waves of anger and sadness as I think about [Floyd’s] life, his family and community – and about this country’s history of criminalizing blackness. George Floyd’s death should not have happened. May he rest in power,” Siddiqui said.

Work with City Manager Louis A. DePasquale and police commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. is ongoing on “how best to keep our community safe from violence,” she said. “We must also work to keep people safe from discrimination and safe from displacement.”

Bard commented briefly on Floyd’s death as well. “Make no mistake about it, George Floyd’s death was the result of depraved indifference.” Bard said online Wednesday before expanding on his thoughts after the protest. Speaking to fellow law enforcement officials via tweet, he said, “I hope we realize that it will take more than words to correct this! Action, and only action will help to reverse this.”

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

31 May

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Because of his WASPy, blue-blooded demeanor and cheeky curiosity, George Plimpton always stuck me as a something of a cross between Thurston Howell III and Hawkeye Pierce – the latter maybe because Alan Alda played Plimpton in the 1968 film based on the writer’s bestselling book, “Paper Lion.” Directors Tom Bean and Luke Poling, in their plumbing of the author, editor and sometimes actor, seek to paint a portrait of a man who was more than the sum of his stunts, which famously included turns as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, goalie for the Boston Bruins, acting with John Wayne and performing with the New York Philharmonic.

Plimpton choose to call these endeavors “participatory journalism,” and it made for good readership in the pages of Sports Illustrated back in the days when Hemingway and Richard Ford were turning in copy. (There was also a “Plimpton! Adventures in Africa” TV series in the early ’70s, hence the film’s title.) He was a string bean of a kid – one of the big reveals early in the film is Plimpton at the prestigious Exeter boarding school failing to make a sports team, which makes his bold undertakings later in life feel like he had something to prove. The main event the film homes in on is Plimpton going a few rounds with boxing legend Archie Moore, the only man to fight both Ali and Rocky Marciano.

And where there is George Plimpton, there is The Paris Review, the literary magazine Plimpton help found in the ’50s and edited until his death in 2003. His love of figures such as Hemingway and Roth is palpable throughout the film, especially in his relentless pursuit to get such luminaries to sit down for interviews. As the doc progresses, Plimpton’s love of the Review shines through even brighter as he becomes a pitch person for car sales and garage openers to make money to support the literary rag. The ads make for a wonderful little time capsule.

Plimpton, as the movie paints him, was a romantic and idealist who kept close ties with the Kennedy family and was there to help wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Plimpton also enjoyed a party, hosting late-night soirees in New York with the likes of Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Allen Ginsberg. His son Taylor, who reads some of his father’s pieces throughout the film, recounts being kept up regularly by the late-night carousing. Plimpton was also friends with Hugh Hefner and dabbled in acting – we all know of his turn as a shrink in “Good Will Hunting” (1997), but he also had small parts in “Rio Lobo” (1970) and even “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962).

Not all were warm to the eclectic Plimpton. Several literati, such as James Salter, make brief appearances in the film to brand him a “dilettante” – something echoed by Plimpton himself, as the film is imbued with an eerie sense of rue that the journo did not produce “more serious” works.

Other notable local flavorings include former hockey player and coach Mike Milbury, who was one of the Bruins whom Plimpton (often seen wobbling on skates in clips) embedded with, and co-director Poling, who later partnered with Independent Film Festival Boston founder Adam Roffman for the beguiling 2015 short doc, “Spearhunter.”

Bigger familiar faces who make the doc include Ken Burns; “The Wild Bunch” (1969) screenwriter Walon Green, who directed an episode of the “Plimpton!” show; and author Jay McInerney (“Bright Lights, Big City”) whose literary career Plimpton helped launch. Bean and Poling’s balanced tribute makes clear Plimpton was a lover of adventure and new things, and wanted to bringing those experiences firsthand to his readers – and to do so he was unafraid to go into the lion’s den.

Getting in two steel wheel in complicated times

31 May

Covid-19 makes bikes more important than ever; It also complicates everything about getting one

A line forms Saturday outside Ace Wheelworks between Porter and Davis squares in Somerville. (Photo: Marc Levy)

When gyms and parks were restricted and shuttered by the coronavirus shutdown, cycling saw a surge as a means of exercise, recreation and transportation – biking by definition has social distancing built into it, a sterling alternative to a crowded subway car where one good sneeze could have a devastating effect. As Massachusetts seeks to get back to normal, bikes will stay important for summer recreation and commuter options. Cambridge just announced a “Shared Streets” initiative to pair with Somerville, and over in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh announced a “Healthy Streets” plan, safer paths encouraging new riders who were formerly deterred by the crush of regular motor vehicle traffic.

If you don’t have a bike and want to get on one, how do you do it with the Covid-19 restrictions still in place? One way is a bike share such as Blue Bikes, but most people will want the comfort and convenience of owning their own steel steed. Buying off Craigslist and the like is one option, but brings with it questions about bike size and other factors – including whether the bike was stolen. Bike stores offer professional advice and a better understanding of quality and cost, help for first-time buyers and assurance of help and service down the line.

Bike stores were deemed “essential” by Gov. Charlie Baker during the shutdown, and most in the Cambridge/Somerville area remained open. Now all are back online with the exception of Quad Bikes, which operates out of a Harvard-owned facility on Shepherd Street. During the stay-at-home mandate, maintenance and repairs were by curbside appointment, and it’ll be largely the same for the first phase of Baker’s four-phase return plan. One of the big challenges presented are hands-on sampling and test rides. Carice Reddien, owner of Bicycle Belle368 Beacon St., near Porter Square in Somerville, a specialist in cargo bikes, e-bikes and family-friendly extension bikes (and just reopened) said, “We’ve been doing socially distanced test rides outside the shop, and it seems to work.” Jason Paige, co-owner of Ace Wheelworks145 Elm St., between Porter and Davis squares in Somerville, whose shop was open for the duration, said, “We do a pretty thorough sales job on the phone, but the first time they ride it is when they pick it up curbside.” That model is flipped from before Covid-19, but Paige said the store has adopted a relaxed return and exchange policy to make shoppers more comfortable with a big purchase. “If you call with a price range and type of style, we’ll make something happen,” Paige said.

The bigger problem is supply and shipping in times of high demand. “Be patient,” Reddien said. “Supplies are low and shops are stretched thin trying to work in new and safe ways.” Paige said Wheelworks at one point had to stop taking orders over the phone because a salesperson would take an order only to have an online shopper beat them to the last SKU. (On the day that I wrote this, the website had a message saying “Sales temporarily suspended.”)

Other stores coming back are trying novel approaches to meet demand and their customer’s needs. Crimson Bikes, the Cannondale retailer at 1001 Massachusetts Ave., Mid-Cambridge, offers mobile visits to your home as well as curbside appointments; Cambridge Bicycle259 Massachusetts Ave., The Port, has something of what shop manager Josh Smith describes as an “Old West countertop service,” with accessories and helmets exhibited at the door for customers to review and try out. Cambridge Bicycle also offers limited test rides.

One thing all agreed on was that the shutdown has been both a boon for cycling. “More people now see cycling as a more attractive and viable thing,” Smith said. Paige said that he’s doing a lot more family sales, with overall sales in units notably up from last year, but accessory sales down. “Families are getting out and biking together,” he said. “That makes me emotional.”

The best way to buy a bike in these socially distancing times seems to start with online research, then a sales call before a scheduled test ride. And to remember, as Reddien said: “Be patient.”

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

25 May

‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’: Failed film haunts, so director does retake on a cruel comic genius

 

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“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is something of a therapy session for director Peter Medak, who worked with Sellers on the abysmal 1973 pirate comedy “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Medak was an up-and-comer hot off the 1972 hit “The Ruling Class” and chanced into Sellers – the world’s most revered comic actor of the time – and at the “Pink Panther” star’s behest, agreed to helm the film conceived by Sellers’ comedic running mate, Spike Milligan. Medak, 35 at the time, said yes (“How could I not?”) and the film went on to be an unmitigated disaster. It ran well over budget, and has still never fully been released.

What we get from Medak’s unique point of view – which is kind of meta, as he’s a filmmaker making a documentary about the making of a film he made – is rue, remiss and a tang of anger. Sellers, after all, pretty much quit the film early on and, as Medak has it, did plenty to undermine the young director and upend a once-promising career. The film is not a hit piece on Sellers, though, and ultimately embraces the troubled star as it delves into his several messy relationships, cardiovascular issues and, as Medak frames with care, mental health issues. Medak’s assessment of his star is backed by Sellers’ daughter, who provides earnest and thoughtful insights.

What’s also amazing to glean from Medak’s rewind is his own journey as a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Hungary during World War II and the Communist iron glove that took hold during the formation of the Soviet Union. But nothing looms as large as Sellers to Medak; it’s the thing that has consumed him for years, and the use of “ghost” is the title is more than apt. The dissection of the production, the filmmaking process and the shenanigans of Sellers and Milligan provide for jaw drops, be it Sellers leveraging his heart condition via a doctor’s note so he could go party in a pub, or the magical transformation of a Chinese junk into the pirate ship only to have it crash on its maiden voyage. Similar films about the making of great films (from the clips of “Noon” that you see here, you know that is not the case), “Burden of Dreams” (1982, about “Fitzcarraldo”) and “Hearts of Darkness” (1991, about “Apocalypse Now”) are more distant and observant; “Ghost of Peter Sellers” to me felt like a somber “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018), Orson Welles’ last, unfinished film framed inside of a documentary. There’s loose narrative play in that film, but Medak here stays close to his heart. In the end he brings it all home while shedding light on careers and films worth remembering … even if the one he’s focused on is not one of them.

Fourteen

20 May

 

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A sharp, clever character study revolving around two friends whose relationship takes on varying shades (ever darker) over a 10-year period. In “Fourteen,” streaming from The Brattle Theatre​’s Virtual Screening Room, what initially looks wholesome and organic becomes something forged more out of matters of necessity, guilt and obligation.

When we first meet Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) they’re young Brooklynites with bright futures. Jo is statuesque and stark in style, form and attitude, especially compared with Maria, who’s petite, pixieish and demurring. They’re Mutt and Jeff in more ways than one. Early on we think we understand the balance; Maria works as a kindergarten school teacher, while Jo allegedly is a social worker but seems to be always out of work for one technicality or another. Her ostensible dysfunction and bad situation pools and expands as we drop in on the pair in various settings (a spare apartment, a dinner party, broad windowed cafe or sitting on a park bench) getting snapshots of the evolution of their relationship. And there’s men, and sex, always there but never as important as the Jo and Maria dynamic, its inherent camaraderie and edgy jealousy.

In one drop-in, Jo quips to Maria, just back from an unsatisfactory date, “You know you have a tendency to think people are insulting you when they try to fuck you.” It’s an odd exchange, but you’re on the edge of your seat trying to dissect and plumb. You learn the title of the film is the age that Jo is diagnosed with certain mental disorders, the kind that slip under the radar and manifest themselves in bigger, more problematic ways as they become pillars of the formed adult.

Made for less than $100,000 by critic and writer Dan Sallit, “Fourteen” is a lo-fi wonder, long on talk and short on setting – the kind of small, intimate film John Cassavetes used to make. Sallit’s big win here are his two impressive leads, who should see their stock soar. They and the film have likely triumphed in ways that might not have come about without Covid-19.

The Brattle and COVID-19

18 May
The Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” a repertory staple, plays to an empty house at The Brattle Theatre, which closed its doors to the public March 14. (Photo: The Brattle Theatre)

A four-phase strategy for reopening Massachusetts businesses and public facilities was announced this week by Gov. Charlie Baker. The plan was vague on details and dates leading up to a final “new normal,” which is something like where we were before Covid-19 turned Boston into a hot zone, though Phase I presumably kicks off May 18. Just what that means and for whom seems to be a bit of a moving target. Among those with questions is the “gathering industry,” as Ivy Moylan, executive director of The Brattle Theatre, explained was how the Harvard Square repertory institution and other arts venues were tagging themselves since the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re hoping to heal and rebound and bring back the joy,” Brattle creative director Ned Hinkle said, “but not be too quick about it. The goal is to open as quickly as possible when it’s safe to do so.” The Brattle ran a survey of its members recently to gauge what “safe” means.

A smattering of drive-ins have opened around the country, and Universal released “Trolls World Tour” digitally (making more than $100 million in three weeks of digital release, something Hinkle says likely happened due to lack of competition) while art houses such as The Brattle and Somerville Theatre have been running Virtual Screening Room selections – smaller releases such as “Deerskin” and arthouse and foreign language classics with a portion of rental fees benefiting the theater you rent from.

“As a small business, we’re pretty agile,” Moylan said. “We could come back pretty quickly.” When shuttering March 14, The Brattle did not have to furlough its employees. “Most are part time,” Moylan said, “but when we shut down, they were our first priority. We want to protect them.” Moylan said at first the shutdown was terrifying, but as things went on managers realized going offline for a while and coming back was doable. “A couple of months,” she said. “A year would be hard.” The nonprofit theater has taken in a good sum through donations and has received Payroll Protection Program funding for its employees.

There’s also the dollars rolling in from the Virtual Screening Room. “It’s great,” Hinkle said, “but a good chunk of what we and theaters make is from concessions.” The Brattle during this time has also engaged filmgoers through virtual programing (movie lists, such as our Film Ahead section has morphed into), a podcast and Friday movie nights co-sponsored with the city.

Aside from slow openings, there’s another problem that will face mainstream theaters relying on the studio system for films, Hinkle said: a dearth of product. The latest James Bond (“No Time to Die”), the next two “Mission: Impossible” chapters, “A Quiet Place Part II” and the next “Wonder Woman” installment have all had their release dates pushed by months. The Brattle, on the other hand, which plays smaller releases and repertory fare, isn’t so reliant.

“We want to bring a rich experience back to our valued patrons,” Hinkle said, “people are hungry for that type of communal experience.” The looming question remains when.

 

Spaceship Earth

10 May

 

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One of my daughter’s favorite rides at Disney World is Spaceship Earth, so it caught her attention when I told her I was seeing a movie called just that, and left her crestfallen when she learned it was essentially a Nat Geo special about old people living in a greenhouse in the desert. The documentary by Matt Wolf follows the rise and fall of (and what went horribly wrong with) Biosphere 2, the artificial environment built in Oracle, Arizona, where, from 1991 to 1993 eight people sealed themselves off in a self-sustaining complex as an experiment to see if humans could live in a contained terrarium without the regular gifts of Mother Earth – aka Biosphere 1.

The stage is set as a bunch of San Francisco idealists and entrepreneurs caught between the Wall Street greed of the 1980s and the Internet bubble conceive an experiment in controlled sustainability and, with deep pockets, build it and select their earthbound astronauts – which, like the Starship Enterprise, has a scientist, doctor, biologist and engineer among the crew. Their mission: to live in the mini Earth (it has its own sea) for two years without contact, nutrients, sustenance or air from the outside. Sunshine is fair game.

Given where we’re at today, you could view Biosphere 2 as the ultimate quarantine, but it’s when personalities take center stage that “Spaceship Earth” gets interesting. Of the eight people in scientific lockdown there’s a couple, a fitness freak physician who waves his virility wide and high to a near gonzo degree, and the must-have MacGyver, ever with screwdriver in hand and donning a utility belt as things go bust now and then. The big challenges inside the bubble come when oxygen levels get low, or one woman gets her hand caught in a straw shredder; outside, project head John Allen, who comes off as something of a cult leader, is embroiled in court proceedings regarding control of the endeavor. It’s one of a few small failings of Wolf’s doc that the enigmatic persona of Allen, a self-described ecologist and early climate change whistleblower, remains vague and unprobed. As the film has it, many in the science community labeled him a hack and Biosphere 2 a stunt producing no real data of value. Times have changed, however, and that’s another failing: There’s no contextual relevance for the experiment to our Biosphere 1 today.

Wolf’s straight-ahead use of archival footage and interviews with surviving terrarium astronauts (terranauts) is effective in conveying the more intriguing narrative of how personalities played off each other in such a confined petri dish. It’s a chronicle of a curious blip in history, a time capsule of the era and food for thought for the future, especially in these self-contained times.