Blonde

24 Sep

Ana de Armas is all-in as Marilyn

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 22, 2022

Andrew Dominik’s new spin on the legacy of Marilyn Monroe is a lurid layer cake of sex and spectacle, with occasional intimate segues into a vulnerable soul screaming for love and a safe space. “Blonde” is also a downright riveting flick from frame one until the credits roll; just how much of it is true is another issue. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ mega-paged tome, which is admittedly fictionalized, there’s threesomes, sexual assault, on-set meltdowns, daddy issues, delusions, emotional juicing and more – enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating. If you take anything from the film, it’s that Monroe, for all her accomplishments and fame, led a pretty shitty life from start to finish, thanks mostly to men who wanted to control her, own her and consume her.

There are a few reasons for the film’s engrossing success, even though it feels so opportunistic and exploitative that you want it to fail. First are the stylistic choices by Dominik, such as cutting in and out of black and white, impressive recreation of screens from Monroe classics such as “Some Like it Hot” and “Niagara,” and the hard Marilyn POV that pays off – kind of – when she’s with JFK and pumped up on sedatives by a doctor ever slinking around the edges of the set. There’s also an emotive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and, of course and most of all, Ana de Armas, who conjures Monroe effortlessly: her breathy, hazy intones and the toggle between perfect shiny object before the camera and hot troubled mess otherwise. 

The young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) as painted has daddy issues – namely that she doesn’t have one, and it becomes an affliction that eats at her over time. Later in life Marilyn refers to her husbands in wispy coos as “daddy.” It’s heavy-handed but fits right in, as men and possible father figures loom large, for the most part with unpleasant results. An early first interview at a studio with a Mr. Z (Zanuck?) comes with requisite (bent-over-the) desk sex, whether wanted or not. Then there’s the hubbies, Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), protective and sensitive until he gets fed up with Marilyn’s sex-bomb image and becomes abusive and worse, and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), in touch with Marilyn’s inner demons but inert when it comes to helping. The real kicker is JFK (Caspar Phillipson), lounging on a bed in hotel room, shirtless but in his infamous back brace, on the phone conducting presidential business. When Marilyn enters, passed on by an agent keeping watch at the suite’s open door, he gives her a series of gestures imploring oral service – the door remains open and Dominik (“Killing Them Softly,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ”) invites us to join in, dropping the camera right into the middle of the act. There’s no full frontal, but the experience is overwhelmingly visceral. Given all that came before, it’s just another indignity in the life of Ms. Monroe. The time Marilyn does find true comfort in the men’s arms, it’s an ongoing, imagined three-way romance with Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), racily rendered but also one of the movie’s more piquant and liberating tear-aways.

This isn’t the first time the inner turmoil of Marilyn has deconstructed and rewritten the script for Hollywood’s most iconic starlet. Back in 2011 Michelle Williams played Monroe at odds with Laurence Olivier on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957) in Simon Curtis’ “My Week with Marilyn.” Much here is asked of Armas, who is topless almost as much as she’s not. As Ryan Gosling’s virtual love interest Joi in “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), she demonstrated the sensuality gene that was such an ingrained part of Monroe’s public persona. She notched comedic flair in “Knives Out” (2019), lively action chops in the recent Bond blast “No Time to Die” (2021) and, maybe more to the end of the Monroe role, played an emotionally and sexually complex wife in Adrien Lyne’s twisted erotic thriller “Deep Water” this year. 

Like Oates’ book, “Blonde” is long, nearly three hours, but it ticks by in a sprightly way due mostly to the manic nature of Monroe’s depicted private life, brought to crescendos and crashes by Armas’ all-in effort. The cinematography by Chayse Irvin (“BlacKkKlansman”) is another staunch asset, as is Julianne Nicholson’s turn as Marilyn’s unstable single mother. It’s an undeniably well crafted film that rescripts history and delivers revelation under the guise of verisimilitude. The question is, does it really do its subject justice?

Rally promotes safer bike lanes, other solutions that protect riders across city lines and statewide

20 Sep

By Tom Meek Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Lily Linke speaks Saturday at a Safe Streets rally she co-organized in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

More aggressive pushes for bike lanes and other safety measures were promoted at a weekend rally in Somerville inspired by the August death of Stephen Conley, 72, in a “dooring” incident with a car.

The Saturday rally for Safe Streets at Seven Hills Park in Davis Square drew speakers that included state Reps. Mike Connolly and Erika Uyterhoeven, Somerville city councilor Willie Burnley Jr., former Cambridge vice mayor Jan Devereux, Cambridge city councilor Burhan Azeem and several residents.

Burnley, a first-term member and “proud member of the carless,” announced that he was calling for a safe streets ordinance similar to Cambridge’s Cycling Safety Ordinance, which requires miles of protected bike lanes to be installed on an aggressive timeline. The frequent need to remove parking to make room has created a divide with some residents and businesses; many speakers acknowledged the controversy but said it steeled their resolve.

“We know there’s a backlash,” Connolly said. “Unfortunately there are lawsuits and a degree of Nimby-ism. Certainly everyone’s entitled to their opinion. But I can tell you, as an elected official, we’re not going backward. We’re going to achieve Vision Zero.” The term refers to street engineered to be safe enough to cause zero deaths.

A crowd gathers to listen to speakers at Saturday’s rally in Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Azeem spoke more directly to challenges in Cambridge. “It’s hard when you’re sitting across the table from a small-business owner who says, ‘You know, if you take away my parking, it will shut down my business,’ but this [bike law] is literally life or death,” Azeem said.

Uyterhoeven shared her own story of long recovery after being hit by a cab in Boston while bicycling, and she encouraged activists to keep pushing until bike lanes were statewide – raising the issue of complications across city lines. Somerville’s portion of Webster Avenue has a protected bike lane, for example, but it ends at the back of a parked car at the Cambridge line to morph into what cyclists and transportation experts call a “door zone” bike lane of just a painted line next to parked cars. “Municipal structures don’t make those cross-city collaborations very easy. But they’re still critical to do,” Devereux said, cited Webster’s disjointed solution.

Another idea Burnley said he was working on with Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne was the prospect of using 311 tickets as a means of ticketing cars parked illegally in bike lanes. Like when failing to pay a toll, a ticket for the infraction would be mailed to the violator. A petition to decriminalize jaywalking circulated before speakers took the stage.

Among the residents speaking were Nadav Tanners, widower of doctor and social activist Leah Zallman. who was walking in Davis square when she was killed by a pickup truck in November 2020; and Cambridge Bicycle Group member Janie Katz-Christy, who talked about the perils and challenges of cycling with children.

The event was organized and hosted by husband and wife Seth Hurwitz and Lily Linke and drew around 100 people, including several cargo bikes laden with children.

Linke and Burnley wore bright red jumpsuits. The outfits were “not coordinated,” Linke said, “but the idea was the same: ‘Stop’ traffic violence.”

Moonage Daydream

17 Sep

There’s a starman waiting on the screen

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 15, 2022

Brett Morgen’s tribute to the life and immeasurable cultural contribution of musical icon David Bowie is not your typical rock-doc, but a sensual blast of imagery and sound – an enigmatic veneration, if you will, that delves into the heart and soul of all things Ziggy Stardust and beyond sans pedagogy.

Bordering on the experimental, “Moonage Daydream” blasts off with effusively edited, quick-cut razzmatazz, bouncing from the handsomely androgynous Ziggy on stage to esoteric silent film clips while orbiting space music chirps. Then we get a last line whispered by Rutger Hauer’s replicant in “Blade Runner” as Bowie is framed in infinite day-glo, duplicated as if he were a Max or Warhol painting. Then we settle in on the charismatic space alien doing a impassioned rendition of “All the Young Dudes,” the song he wrote for Mott the Hoople. It’s a kinetic kick in the kisser and the promise of something more: a Bowie immersion for fans and a 101 for the curious and uninformed.

At nearly two and a half hours, Morgen’s film maintains the power surge of riveting wonderment for a calisthenic 60 minutes; the films ebbs as we move from the big-screen culmination of Ziggy in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) to the Thin White Duke stage of his career. It’s in these later frames we hear more from Bowie reflecting back on his family and early challenges, the influence his brother had on him (he exposed him to Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Fats Domino, and was later put away in a sanatorium), his constant fear of mental illness and his aloof, estranged relationship with his mother. There’s plenty of ’60s and ’70s interview footage with Bowie pushing bisexuality and cross-dressing with buttoned-down, nonchalant panache. Missing however is Angie (his first wife that Jagger crooned about), and there’s just a wispy air kiss to Iman and no “Putting Out Fires.”

What Morgen concocts is a kaleidoscopic montage without a traditional narrative, though much of what you see is in pat chronological order. Morgen owes much to the late D.A. Pennebaker (“The War Room,” “Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back”), who shot several early Bowie concert films including “David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust” (1973), as well as to the camera folk who tailed Bowie during the making of “Man Who Fell to Earth” and his wistful exile to Berlin in the early ’80s. In the film you get a clear sense of the iconoclast’s commitment to his art and desire to morph and try different mediums (he was the first rock star to do a Broadway show, starring in “The Elephant Man” in 1980), but you never really get a full sense of Bowie the man. Does he remain aloof because he needs his distance to create, or is he a practical poser, or perhaps even a misanthrope? Hard to tell, but you do see the glimmer of a wry character in there who’s an innocent searcher, a bit of a raconteur and a puppet master, quick with a terse retort to those asking about his mask du jour.

One note (make that two) about the production: The Bowie estate sanctioned the film, which means Morgen, whose past reflections on intriguing personas include “The Kid Stays in the Picture” (2002) detailing the manic up and downs of New Hollywood producer Robert Evans; “Jane” (2017), a strong portrait of primatologist Jane Goodall; and “Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the 2015 look back at Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, has access to Bowie’s film archive, artwork (he was an impressive painter) and music. That, especially the music, is a big win when you consider the flaccid 2020 biopic “Stardust” hobbled by its inability to play Bowie tunes.

In the late ’90s director Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “Poison”) wanted to produce an adoration of Bowie and a nostalgic kiss to glam rock. Bowie turned him down, and Haynes went a different route, resulting in the underappreciated “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) in which he invents a fictional ’70s glam rocker named Brian Slade (played with perfect pomp and pouf by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who was, for all intents and purposes, Ziggy/Bowie. For the film, Haynes and crew recorded new glam-styled tunes and borrowed a few from Brian Eno, who appears several times in Morgen’s doc, credited as a creative influence on Bowie throughout the years. The other wild thing about the film’s journey to the screen is that when Bowie’s estate gave Morgen the green light, he had a heart attack and went into a coma. The film almost didn’t get made.

It’s a passion project, to be sure, that will sing to those who miss Bowie, especially those who embrace all stages of his meteoric and variegated career. Given the redundancy of some philosophies expressed and imagery reused, the film could have done with another round of edits, but it’s an exquisite composition with unlimited access and, like its subject, a shining wonderment that tantalizes and holds you at arm’s length.

Barbarian

11 Sep

Good scares about an Airbnb worth bad reviews

By Tom Meek Friday, September 9, 2022

“Barbarian” is an innovative shot of horror from writer-director Zach Cregger (“The Whitest Kids U’Know”) that plays gleefully with tropes and viewer expectations. It’s impressively crafted and makes for a riveting and genuinely chilling edge-of-your-seat experience. The setup’s pretty basic: Tess (Georgina Campbell) is in Detroit for an interview to be an assistant to a documentary filmmaker who champions social causes and the arts. In the middle of a major thunderstorm, Tess rolls up to the cute little house she’s rented on Airbnb and finds it already occupied by a dude named Keith (Bill Skarsgård). What to do? Keith’s a little sketchy, but on invite Tess comes in so she can get out of the rain and call the owner. Natch, there’s no answer and no response to email. Keith offers to take the couch, and Tess agrees reluctantly to stay. After Keith lets on he’s seen the director’s films, the two end up bonding over a bottle of wine. You feel certain there’s something devious and dark something going on, but Tess gets through the night and to the interview. What’s troubling in the morning, however, is the realization that the house is the only maintained residence on the street – as far as the eye can see, there’s nothing but dilapidated, bombed-out shacks, husks of Reagan’s 1980s economic boom. When Tess returns to the house, circumstance has her venture down into the basement where Cregger, like Ti West in “X” last year (and likely too with the film’s follow-up, “Pearl,” opening next weekend), pays homage to the classic gore-ror of the 1970s from Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and more while employing some crafty bait-and-switch and breaking new ground.

It’s hard to say more about “Barbarian” – the curious title reflects the street name, Barbar – without ruining the film’s deftly ingrained, devilish wit. Strange as it may sound, there’s a #MeToo subplot about an L.A. actor (Justin Long, the Mac guy) whose career goes down the toilet and a flashback to Barber Street during the prosperous 1980s. The performances by relative newcomer Campbell and Skarsgard (Pennywise in the recent “It” films) are nuanced, robust and deep in character. “Barbarian” is not quite on par with Jordan Peele’s acerbic social redirect “Get Out” (2017), but it’s in the ballpark’s parking lot. Speaking of Peele and his latest, “Nope,” that’s the exact word in the exact context Peele intended that falls from Tess’ mouth when she discovers an antechamber. Since the films were released in the same year, it’s hard to imagine Cregger playing on it; the serendipitous prospect is equally as neat. For all its little dekes and tweaks on old tricks, “Barbarian” falls more and more toward the pedestrian as it ties up loose ends and subplots. It’s still a taut, worthy ride and one that should allow Cregger, whose directorial CV is slim, to come back with more. 

How green is your Soylent?

9 Sep

Soylent Green is now

In 1966, when Harry Harrison penned his dystopian thriller Make Room! Make Room!, which began life as a serial in Impulse magazine, he predicted that by the future year of 1999, there would be more than 7 billion people on earth, and a robust 35 million in New York City alone. The 1973 film adaptation of Harrison’s novel, Soylent Green, altered several aspects of Harrison’s novel, including the year in which the thriller is set: 2022.

Now that we’re there (and decades past 1999), it’s worth asking: how well did Soylent Green director Richard Fleischer and his writer, Stanley R. Greenberg, get things right? When Harrison penned his serial, inspired in part by the Malthusian hysteria of the ecological movement, the world population was just over 3 billion, with the five boroughs of New York City checking in at 15 million. In 1999, those numbers were 6 billion and 17.5 million respectively. Today, we’ve passed Harrison’s prediction of 7 billion worldwide, but New York City, at 19 million, is still less than half of the 40 million that the film foresaw for our current year.

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Fleischer, whose list of credits includes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Doctor Doolittle (1967), Mandingo (1975) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), does a journeyman’s job of establishing the apocalyptic future at hand, giving us a sprightly montage of newsreel footage that rifles through cresting heaps of trash, cars locked in traffic jams as far as the eye can see, industrial waste belched upwards into the darkening sky and spewed out into debris-choked streams. It’s climate-change-on-crack, if you will. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Gone are the posh, coddled streets of Manhattan; now we find an impromptu tent city , with people living in rusted-out husks of abandoned automobiles. To get to his brownstone walk-up apartment, our protagonist, NYPD Detective Robert Thorn (played by Charleston Heston), has to navigate a writhing throng of homeless sleeping in the stairwell. At the top of those stairs there’s an armed guard to ensure none of the downtrodden gets too far up. It’s a metaphor for the society he lives in — get it?

As a comfortably employed member of the establishment (unemployment in the city is over 50 percent) you’d think Thorn might have decent digs. As is, he shares a cramped half-flat with an amiable old codger named Sol Roth (played by Edward G. Robinson, who died before the film was released), a retired academic and police investigator who every now and then hops on a stationary bike to power their humble TV.

In this austere future, the truly elite live well in modernistic lux domes, fenced off and tucked away from the hordes. Such grand enclaves come with bodyguards, a house manager and what’s referred to as “furniture,” i.e. one or more young women assigned to provide servitude and pleasure. When one such upper-cruster is murdered (the mystery Thorn is investigating) and the abode sold, the “furniture” (Leigh Taylor-Young) becomes part of the asset transfer.

Clearly, neither Make Room! Make Room! nor Soylent Green anticipated the dramatic upheavals in gender relations of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, brought about by feminism in general and the #MeToo awakening most recently. But they were pretty spot-on in forecasting the widening wealth gap and expanding corporate influence (the Soylent Corp., the all-powerful provider of foods and services, is eerily akin to Amazon today), and the dystopic subjugation of women seems like further biting commentary against a society run by the strong and wealthy few.

There’s a bit that’s comically dated , such as the film’s sense of future fashion and its rendering of the modern police force. As a law enforcement official, Thorn is hard to take seriously, garbed in a rumpled pastel cap and matching neckerchief and a cheesy Members Only jacket. The getup looks like Bogie’s skipper outfit in The African Queen, updated for the Eighties nightclub. Cops wear lacrosse helmets as riot gear, and their crowd-control vehicles are essentially garbage trucks equipped with a scoop to pick up and toss the disobedient hungry into their cavernous bins.

Make Room! Make Room! and Soylent Green also whiff in the technological sphere. There is no evidence in either book or movie of the stunning advances we’ve really made in computers, the internet, AI and social media. That said, both the novel and the film keenly foresee our current agitation over the control and diffusion of information and misinformation. Whereas we have “fake news” and troll farms, the 2022 of Soylent Green plays out a Fahrenheit 451-style future, showing how the ruling class, through the decimation of paper literature , pretty much holds the masses in an uninformed, complacent stasis. Not too far off, really, from the ignorant distraction provided by the digital cosmos of today.

Back to that mysterious food company. Because the cataclysmic side effects of global warming have essentially left the land and the seas barren, the Soylent Corporation — whose flagship product is an amalgam of “soy” and “lentil” — has become the de facto food provider to the world. Beef still exists, but only as a super scarce black-market luxury item. A jar of strawberry jam costs $150. What folks feast on instead are “Soylent Yellow” and “Soylent Red,” high-energy vegetable concentrates that come in wafer form. The corporation then releases the new “Soylent Green” version, which a television pundit informs us is sourced from plankton.

Today, back in the real world , we have lab-engineered plant-based “meat substitutes” like “Beyond” and “Impossible” meats, which cost about as much as their beef or pork antecedents. There’s even a company called Soylent, founded in 2012 by overworked Silicon Valley workers looking for a quick, nutritious meal to get them through their high-tech grind. The company, named as an homage to Harrison’s novel, produces 400-calorie plant-based power-drinks that provide the nutrients of a complete meal. There are myriad flavors — vanilla, banana, chocolate and so on — to choose from. A twelve-pack delivered to your door will cost you just north of forty dollars.

The narrative twist introduced by the film — spoiler alert — concerns the source of the titular sustenance, Soylent Green. Surprise: it’s not plankton after all (as it really was in the book), but human remains. The public is unaware of this unpalatable truth until the final frames of the movie, when a wounded Thorn, just captured by the bad guys , shouts out that indelible line to the crowd around him: “Soylent Green is people!” It’s a sharp, demonic twist: the conundrum of overpopulation and decimated food sources is solved by clandestine cannibalism.

The government mandates the “retirement” of seniors through a spa-like process, where the to-be-euthanized get to choose their favorite color (in the case of Sol, orange), music (classical), and visual surroundings (a medley of fields, streams and fauna that no longer exist) for their tranquil fade-out. I’d liken it to going under for surgery, or that brief and pleasantly groggy state after a full-body massage. It seems like a relatively easy way to go, for those who have to go, though with the unseemly risk of grandson chowing down on grandpa when Tuesday’s portions are meted out.

While we’re not quite living out the fullness of Fleischer’s grim forecast for year 2022, red lights are flashing. The race for clean energy, reduced carbon emissions and sustainable food has been slow out of the gate. Yes, there are still fish in the sea, and deer still frolic in bucolic glens. But whereas in the Nixon-era 1970s, the dark, self-invoked damnation of Soylent Green felt like something from the pages of H.G. Wells — fantastical, and generations off — today one can envision the film’s desolate rendering over the not-too-distant hills uncomfortably clearly.

Three Thousand Years of Longing

27 Aug

Spectacle with an unfulfilled wish for narrative harmony

By Tom Meek Thursday, August 25, 2022

The latest from George Miller, the man known primarily as the force behind the innovative “Mad Max” film franchise (though let’s not forget he also helmed such diverse fare as “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Happy Feet”), is an opulently rendered tale about two bereft souls who find each other through happenstance and blossom as a result. Part of the film’s charm is Miller’s ability to go big, something put on glorious display in his last, “Mad Max: Fury Road” back in 2015, and again here in “Three Thousand Years of Longing” in re-creating a mid-B.C. visit between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon amid Ottoman empire buildings. The film’s other charm is its leads: Tilda Swinton, as a set-in-her-ways scholar and Idris Elba – whom you can also catch in theaters this week in the “Jaws”-with-claws thriller “Beast” – as the genie she uncorks while on an academic retreat in Istanbul.

Much of what unfolds in this adaptation of the novella by A.S. Byatt (“Possession”) takes place in a hotel suite. Not just any hotel suite, but the one in which Agatha Christie wrote “Murder on the Orient Express.” It’s something of a dark pajama party, with Swinton’s Alithea and Elba’s Djinn (as he’s called by Alithea) in bathrobes; she’s just out of the shower when wrangling with the hand-blown bauble picked up in a marketplace, and he, after initially being room-fillingly large and vaporous, dons terry cloth in his more human assumed form. The two trade tales: Back in the day, he was Sheba’s lover and Solomon trapped him in a jar and tossed him in the sea. Not to be outdone about a love gone wrong, Alithea recounts her marriage to a fellow academic, intellectually and sexually fulfilling until he ran off with a student. There’s also the matter of three wishes, and the long, inglorious history of unintended circumstances that have come back to bite greedy wishers. Alithea, an expert on narrative structure, the history of storytelling and lore, is wise to the perils and wonders if The Djinn is in fact trying to trick her – to gain his freedom from the bottle and mortal servitude, he needs to grant a mortal three wishes. Alithea holds out, and just like the Major and Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeannie,” mortal and magical begin a relationship with sexual undercurrents raging and rife at every turn. 

Miller’s vision has some big, spectacular set pieces, especially as it riffles back to the ancient times of The Djinn’s long-lived existence, and the actors, both talented and clearly up for the game – Swinton ethereal, wise and ever probing, while Elba, so commanding as Bloodsport in “The Suicide Squad” last year, casts a majestic yet troubled, somber aura – are captivating to behold with all their soul-baring. And yet somehow, something feels amiss. Something’s not there. Their sudden, deep romantic bond feels like a quick Gorilla Glue fix applied during script revision triage, and what of the rules of those wishes? There’s some stuff about unfulfilled third wishes (the wisher died after No. 2) requiring closure that never seem to get addressed. Several times Alithea says, “I wish …,” but what happens, or not, never fully makes sense. The two do finally get out of the hotel suite and travel back to London, where Alithea, tired of her xenophobic neighbors, has Djinn help her deliver exotic midday snacks to the biddies who spend their days doing little more than othering. I wish the film had more moments like that. There’s much to admire in the craft all around, but for all its grand gestures, “Three Thousand Years” feels not quite fully formed. It’s a novel concept about parched beings thirsting for soul-slaking water, as was the case for the masses in “Fury Road.” In Miller’s impressive “Max” revisit, in the end, the water flowed in torrents. Here, it’s as if someone forgot to pay the water bill. 

Latest fatality of a bicyclist because of ‘dooring’ brings reminders of the lifesaving Dutch Reach

23 Aug

Bike Safety Measures Needed

By Tom Meek, Tuesday, August 23, 2022

A mobile traffic sign in Somerville promotes the “Dutch Reach” technique for bicyclist safety. (Photo: The Dutch Reach Project via Twitter)

Bicyclists are calling urgently for Somerville to install more protected bike lanes since the Aug. 12 death of Stephen Conley, 72, from a dooring on Broadway near Teele Square.

“Protected bike lanes prevent this kind of crash,” said George Schneeloch, a member of the Somerville Bike Safety group. “The city must work urgently to prevent future fatal crashes like this one by installing protected bike lanes in both directions on Broadway, so that bicyclists are kept clear of car doors.”

Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne has committed to immediate safety changes, but not to a timeline for bike lanes, Schneeloch said. The commitment was reported Aug. 16 by StreetsblogMass.

There’s another solution that could have prevented the Conley crash, though, and doesn’t rely on potentially expensive infrastructure changes: the Dutch Reach, a method of opening a car door using the farthest hand from it.

The Dutch Reach prevents swinging a car door open fully and forces drivers’ heads to turn and see more of the surrounding conditions, said Michael Charney on Monday.

Michael Charney in a screen capture from “All Things Bike with Fred Thomas” in October 2019.

Charney, 76 and still getting around mostly by bike, is a retired physician and bicycling safety advocate who lives in Cambridge just outside Somerville’s Union Square – and credited as the originator of the term “Dutch Reach” and vital in getting adopted worldwide.

A dooring is when a driver opens a car door without looking and a cyclist crashes into it, often getting thrown into traffic. Massachusetts law says, “No person shall open a door on a motor vehicle unless it is reasonably safe to do so without interfering with the movement of other traffic, including bicyclists and pedestrians.” The fine for such a violation is up to $100.

Doorings account for 20 percent of bike crashes in Cambridge, according to city development officials. Jeremy Warnick, director of communications and media relations for Cambridge police, noted in a Tuesday email that July saw three doorings in Cambridge, and a severe dooring in Kendall Square in April that led to riders on a tandem bike being taken to a hospital after first aid was applied by officers on site.

The number of Cambridge bicycle crashes involving a “dooring” in 2020 was six, or 9 percent of the 66 total bicycle crashes reported to Cambridge police, but the number of citations issued for opening a door when unsafe that year was 58, Warnick said. In 2021, those figures were nine (or 12 percent of the 76 total bicycle crashes reported to police) and 50, respectively. Police see the pandemic as a cause for the drop from the typical 20 percent, Warnick said.

But data collection is complicated for doorings, said Charney and Galen Mock, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition. There are arguably accidents where near-doorings result in a fatality when the rider swerves into a traffic lane and is hit by a passing motor vehicle, but a dooring would likely not be recorded as a factor in the crash. A pending state Act to Reduce Traffic Fatalities would standardize how bike crash data is captured and categorized, Mock said in a Monday email.

Coining a term, starting a movement

The Dutch Reach, while an invention of the Netherlands, was introduced in this country by Charney after he was shaken by the dooring death of cyclist Amanda Phillips in Inman Square in June 2016. Charney launched the Dutch Reach Project by sending a series of “Dutch Reach haikus” to the Cambridge and Somerville police departments – and it was Somerville that took the haikus to heart and placed mobile traffic signs with Charney’s poems flashing on them. Charney’s work helped convince Massachusetts to include the Dutch Reach in its driver’s ed programs starting in 2017. Charney said he has gone on to speak via Zoom with cycling safety organizations as far away as Malaysia and India.

“I practically fell off the chair realizing that this is such a simple solution,” Charney said on the Maine-based “All Things Bike with Fred Thomas” in October 2019. “Dutch reach was my coinage, and it worked out very well for various reasons – one is ‘teach the reach,’ ‘preach the reach.’ What wasn’t appreciated by me at the time that I coined it was that there’s a whole string of [other phrases such as] ‘Dutch treat,’ ‘Dutch uncle,’ also there’s a thing ‘Dutch ding-dong’ that have outré connotations and create a buzz among millennials … Though there’s nothing dirty about the Dutch Reach. It just saves lives.”

Other paths to safety

Charney also endorsed the concept of a “road hierarchy” that places less legal onus on the most vulnerable on the road, starting with pedestrians, then cyclists, motorcycles and scooters, cars, SUVs and vans and, as the most dangerous, trucks and buses.

Another safety measure Charney suggested where there are “door zone bike lanes,” meaning those separated from parked cars only by paint on the road: Cyclists can “take the lane.” Riding in front of cars can be intimidating for cyclists, as motorists tend to get frustrated with slower-moving traffic and might honk or harass them, especially if there’s a bike lane available. But in Massachusetts a cyclist has the right to assume a full traffic lane on nearly all municipally maintained streets, Charney said.

Charney calls his solutions no-cost but partial, as he feels there’s no single cure-all for road safety, but many baby steps to safer roads – including that  “motor vehicle technology, sensors, cameras and computers, keep getting smarter and will be another partial solution to greater road safety.” But always check your mirrors, use the Dutch Reach and slowly, and look for fellow road users, he said.

Porter Square Neighbors Association cleans, sweating the details with bags and brooms

23 Aug

Pitching in together

By Tom Meek, Sunday, August 21, 2022

Lesley University soccer players participate in a Saturday cleanup around Porter Square. (Photo: Audrey Calhoun/Lesley University)

It was near 90 degrees and blistering Saturday when a hodgepodge volunteer crew of nearly 50 set to work cleaning up the Porter Square T Station plaza as well as the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue north and south of it. “I think this is our tenth year,” said organizer Ruth Ryals, head of the Porter Square Neighbors Association.

Over the course of four midday hours the rotating team picked up trash, weeded sidewalks and did other basic beautification at the Porter Square Shopping Center, the storefronts opposite it and the Lesley building and sidewalks down toward the intersection with Linnaean Street. Given the heat, Ryals said, “I’m super impressed.” Half the volunteers were the returning Lesley women’s soccer team. “Normally Harvard joins us too, but they’re not back yet.”

Fresh fruit, cases of water, brown landfill compost bags, brooms and weeding tools were supplied to volunteers, many of who wore safety vests as they toiled.

Ryals, who ran the check-in and handout station on the MBTA plaza, thanked the Department of Public Works for trash removal and power washing; Star Market in the Porter Square Shopping Center for the water; Lesley, or “the young people anxious to give back,” as Ryals referred to them; Junior’s Automotive & Gas and volunteer Jim Cornie, who not only delivered tools to the plaza but continued to weed and mulch after the event ended; and the office of state Rep. Marjorie Decker.

Cleanup volunteer Jean Krulic and Porter Square Neighbors Association leader Ruth Ryals on Saturday in Porter Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

While Lesley has several community service initiatives, the effort was a direct coordination between Ryals and Lesley soccer coach Paul Vasconcelos. “Our Lesley University women’s soccer team has been participating in the Porter Square/Mass Ave cleanup for the last few years. It’s something our student athletes look forward to every year and a great way for them to get acclimated, as they are from all over the country,” Vasconcelos said in an email.

Several volunteers expressed satisfaction in the before and after of claiming a tree basin or stretch of sidewalk, taking trowel to root and ridding the area of unsightly crabgrass. Many also thought it would be great if the MBTA, Lesley and area storefront owners followed by watering and beautification measures such as planters.

Emily the Criminal

13 Aug

‘Emily the Criminal’: Student debt made her do it

By Tom Meek Friday, August 12, 2022

Aubrey Plaza in EMILY THE CRIMINAL

Aubrey Plaza may just be indie film’s “it” human of the moment. With accolades for performances in critically noted, smaller fare such as “Black Bear” (2020), “Ingrid Goes West” (2017) and this slide from millennial slog into crime – a Sundance hit – Plaza’s proven capable and clearly on the edge of a breakout. Directed by John Patton Ford, pulling from his experience of cracking under the weight of student loan debt, “Emily the Criminal” concocts a narrative that’s just as much character study and social commentary as it is a crime drama.

Plaza stars as the titular Emily, out of school, talented but unable to land a gig. Part of the problem is that she has a record. The publishing/graphic design industry she wants to break also into requires a demurring personality and the ability to work an internship for six-months-plus for free. Emily’s a quietly take-no-shit kind of person, but she also needs money, which leads to the occupation of the title. Shlepping as a caterer, trying to get a real job and pay off mounting bills, Emily gets hooked up through a friend with a dicey yet amiable character named Youcef (Theo Rossi), an immigrant with hopes of realizing the American Dream who’s running a credit card scam to achieve it. Emily, living the American Nightmare, gets in on it, tangentially at first. Then she and Youcef find they have more in common, including dealing with his troublesome brother who is threatening the side biz and its mounting pile of cash. We find out later about Emily’s past transgression – and god forbid if you cross her; the payback is X-Acto knife justice for a shady couple who get onto her scheme. Then there’s her interview for that coveted publishing gig (with Gina Gershon!) that’s almost as captivatingly fiery as Matt Damon’s high-rise job interview in “Good Will Hunting” (1997).

“Emily the Criminal” clicks because of Plaza. No Plaza, no clicking. Gershon and Rossi are great accoutrements who have seamless chemistry with Plaza, knowing how to play off her without deferring to her. It’s a confluence of smart casting, lived-in performances and directing by a person who understands his performers and their characters deeply. Still, Plaza: Not enough can be said about her subtlety, or how much she does with a sneer or a shift of her large, luminous eyes. It’s a filmmaking turn. After seeing “Emily” you’ll want more of her, both streaming (the above cited films are worthy) and in the future. My only (selfish) hope is that she doesn’t go commercial and get lost, the way Brie Larson (“Room”) did (“Captain Marvel”).

Nope

24 Jul

‘Nope’: A hell of a weird ride on the horse ranch

By Tom Meek, Friday, July 22, 2022

Jordan Peele’s third horror installment would make a good double bill with Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” (2019), as both take place in dusty Western shanty towns north of L.A. with ties to the film industry. Good portions of Tarantino’s “Once,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a 1950s western TV actor whose glory days are behind him, are situated in a Hollywood stage strip town and the Spahn Ranch where followers of Charles Manson have set up camp. In Peele’s “Nope” – the terse title a take on audiences reaction to horror films when a potential victim does something unwise – nearly all the action takes place at the Haywood’s Hollywood Horses ranch and neighboring Wild West theme park, Jupiter’s Claim.

Peele is one to settle into the everyday and root audiences so deeply in his characters that when things go bump in the night, it takes a little while to catch onto the oddities. The same is true here; the atmospheric buildup is masterful. Though I hate to say it, I’m not sure the payoff is as worthy as his first two efforts, “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019). We catch up with Pa Haywood (David Keith, in it far too little) and his son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya, working with Peele again after “Get Out”) moseying around their vast, barren ranch when what seems like bullets start to pepper the area around them. Is there a sniper in the hills? Nope, just a freak aviation mishap that takes Pa’s life – or so that’s what the authorities say happened. Strapped for cash and unable to keep the biz clicking like Pa, OJ sells some of his horses to that Wild West show run by former child TV star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun, “Minari”). One night OJ and his fiery kid sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) witness cultlike gatherings at Jupiter’s Claim and freaky stuff starts to happen. The electricity goes out, horses go wild, there’s an upward vortex scouring the valley, and something dark and big streaks through the sky.

Sensing something otherworldly and wanting cash, Emerald and OJ decide to capture the phenomenon on film so they can score their “Oprah moment.” Part of the plan leads them to Best Buy knockoff where they reluctantly enlist the resident Geek Squad dude named Angel Torres (a bleach-blond-streaked Brandon Perea) to set up security cams to capture the phenom. Angel’s a bit of a UFO nerd to boot, and looking at early footage notices a cloud that hasn’t moved in days, hmmmm. When the entity dampens electricity by battery or otherwise, the trio turn to veteran Hollywood cinematographer Antlers Holst (character actor Michael Wincott, whose gravelly voice is an attraction in its own right) and his old-school, crank-operated cam.

The rise to the crest is slow and steady, and a great character study with some super neat backstories, but once we get to the what and why of the goings-on at Jupiter’s Claim, “Nope” shifts gears and becomes something akin to a Spielberg alien encounter flick – “War of the Worlds” (2005) or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Some of the bait and switch in trying to ferret out the entity also has some of the seagoing fun of “Jaws” (1975), with players at different posts reacting to unfolding events differently, though given the dusty, spare terrain it reminds me more of the quirky 1990s cult hit “Tremors.”

Some of the basic rules about encountering the visitor don’t always hold true; OJ learns that if you avoid eye contact and look down, you’re in a safe place. It works for him, but not so much for others. The film’s told in chapters, mostly with names of animals the Haywoods train or the TV-family-adopted chimp Gordy, from one of the hit shows Jupe was part of as a boy. It’s a dark, alluring chapter that has little to do with what’s going on in the present, but a phenomenal – and let me add, grim – segment, worthy perhaps of a bigger piece on its own. Then there’s the Haywoods’ history: The first moving picture shot by Eadweard Muybridge, a clip called “The Horse in Motion” from 1878, featured a black jockey riding a lithe, muscular stallion, which Emerald proudly tells prospective employers was their great, great-grandad.

As far as sociopolitical commentary goes, there’s nothing as prominent here as in “Get Out.” Perhaps a comment about territoriality and land rights, or inciting an entity that holds lethal authority? More so “Nope” is a solid summer pleaser, a sci-fi thriller with some very deep characters, incredible performances – the laconic Kaluuya does so much with those eyes, and Palmer is just a firecracker in every scene – and a thinking person’s pacing. It isn’t perfect, but it powers through with an ensemble performance that’s near unbeatable.