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. 

Without Remorse

30 Apr

‘Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse’: Action thriller with vengeance straight from the assembly line

By Tom Meek Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Tom Clancy wrote “Without Remorse” back in 1993, when the Iron Curtain still felt like a threat. For a contemporary makeover, accounting for world-changing events might help. We get some of that with cellphones and the like, but mostly the script from Taylor Sheridan (the sharp hand behind “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River”) and Will Staples (who’s mostly written video games like “Call of Duty”) is a lackluster transposition steered inertly by Stefano Sollima (“Sicario: Day of the Soldado”). This “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” is an assembly-line production with little thrill or intrigue – the ingredients that made Clancy’s Jack Ryan series (“The Hunt for Red October,” “Patriot Games”) a must read/see for any spy or jarhead enthusiasts. Even the magnetic Michael B. Jordan, so good as a young black man targeted by police in “Fruitvale Station” (2013), comes off flat as Navy Seal-cum-antihero Jack Kelly (a spinoff character from the Ryan series once played by Willem DaFoe in “Clear and Present Danger”) out for revenge after Russian operatives kill his pregnant wife. Kelly and other SEALS are targeted for assassination after an Aleppo raid to free a CIA operative.

Sounds like a man with a major payback mission, but Kelly’s want for blood feels strangely unearned, as we never really feel his emotional attachment or grief. No, the dead are little more than a plot-moving checkpoint for Kelly to use his special-ops skills – and his resolve is impressive, especially when in prison, where he takes on a phalanx of guards “Old Boy” style. The world-hopping mission that comes when CIA brass let him out and off the leash takes Kelly to Russia and back to D.C., but never does the shell game of who’s pulling the strings ever really raise a brow. The well choreographed shootouts and beatdowns puncture the drudgery enough to keep your lids open, but in between it’s all pink filler.

Also wasted is Jodie-Turner Smith, the promising fresh face from “Queen & Slim” (2019), as Lt. Commander Karen Greer, Kelly’s mission head, as well as the normally infallible Guy Pearce as a CIA honcho who seems to be chewing on Xanax like Tic Tacs. 

Voyagers

13 Apr

‘Voyagers’: It’s Lord-of-the-Flies-into-space, with kids off their meds and onto adult trouble

By Tom MeekFriday, April 9, 2021

Playing with YA future tropes (think “Hunger Games” and “Chaos Walking”), director Neil Burger (“Limitless” and “Divergent,” another YA sci-fi flyby) fills a spaceship with the genetically engineered offspring of MIT scientists and Nobel laureates and sends them off into the universe to find the next place for humans to expand, because, well, we’ve screwed Earth so royally – no surprise there. The journey, as we’re told by Richard (Colin Farrell), the one adult/chaperone aboard, will take 86 years, and it will be the grandchildren of the mensch progeny that will reseed mankind on a far distant planet, where one can foresee a wash, rinse, trash orb and repeat cycle.

Like “Passengers” (2016) and Clare Denis’ alluring jump into space, “High Life” (2019), “Voyagers” is more about the sexual and personality play among those onboard as opposed to the quest at hand. Of the myriad high-cheekboned Calvin Klein models, the main trio consists of the blandly heroic Christopher (Tye Sheridan, “Ready Player One”), a manically glossy-eyed Zac (Fionn Whitehead, “Dunkirk”) and the dour Sela (Johnny Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp, who channels dad’s “Cry-Baby” sullenness here). Everyday the sexually budding teens drink a shot of mouthwash-blue liquid that, as Christopher discovers, contains a toxin. Richard quickly explains it away, but the persistent Christopher learns it’s a drug to control, numb and pacify them like saltpeter was rumored to be used on soldiers in days of old. Once the kids go off their meds, merriment, Greco-Roman wrestling and libidos take center stage. It’s here that Richard, through dark happenstance, exits and Christopher and Zac vie to be the alpha male, with Sela’s chastity as the prize hanging in the balance. Other little horny teen fires flare up too, and there’s the threat of an alien aboard whom no one has seen, but can be heard roaming and clanking in the passages above and below. 

What the film comes to is “Lord of the Flies” in deep space with sensual desires being acted upon – forget the conch, it’s all about the satiation of urges. The problem is that everything feels staged and unfelt, even those urges. More problematic perhaps is the sexual aggression some of the young lads unleash upon their female co-explorers. One vicious breast grope is a real eye catcher, but then you realize that the inflight film selection probably didn’t include “Promising Young Woman” (2020) or any proper sexual code of conduct lessoning, given that they’ve been chemically sedated (what was Richard’s master plan, considering the kids would outlive him?). Since this is 2063, #MeToo is clearly a distant memory, or because these kids were deposited on the space vessel so as to not be acculturated to our fat and obsolete ways, how would they know? The provocatively fun thing about Denis’ “High Life” was the way checked and regulated sexuality bent and shaped character and pushed the rules of conduct aboard the ship, as well as our own sense of sexual turpitude. Here it’s like boys discover erections and go berserk with the future of humanity the last thing on their hormone-guided minds.

Godzilla vs. Kong

2 Apr

‘Godzilla vs. Kong’: The humans wisely step aside for a battle of titans, with more kaiju ready to join

By Tom MeekWednesday, March 31, 2021

Pretty much a toe-to-toe slugfest between two alpha males. Think of any of the three Frazier vs. Ali fights or Ali vs. Foreman in the “rumble in the jungle” classic, but at under two hours, the CGI-propelled monster smackdown of “Godzilla vs. Kong” is more like Hagler vs. Hearns, light, fast and furious. The thing about that epic 1985 middleweight bout was its resonance: People were so awed by the raw brutality, the nuclear salvo of haymakers thrown, so violent and yet balletic, three frenetic rounds that would be watched and rewatched, etching Hagler into Boston sporting lore alongside names such as Orr, Bird, Williams and Russell. (Hagler, who sadly just passed, was one of the most dominant boxers of his era; he hailed from Brockton and became an adopted son of Boston).

Speaking of Boston, the last time we got a look at Godzilla in “King of the Monsters” (2018) he was giving Ghidorah a beatdown at Fenway Park. Here, mumblegore stalwart Adam Wingard (“You’re Next,” “V/H/S”) makes an odd but effective choice of director, and with a phalanx of screenwriters forms a crew that knows that the green screen titans getting it on is the jam; they dispatch the what’s-what with a brief undercard of mumbo-jumbo about there only be one ruling kaiju, and then we get into it. Kong is taken from his tiny island; Godzilla comes for him; and aboard the deck of an aircraft carrier we get round one. Cities in the aftermath get obliterated as the lads wander off into their respective corners. There’s something clearly up with Godzilla, we’re told by myriad humans with thespian mettle (and more Boston connections) including Kyle Chandler (“Manchester by the Sea”), Rebecca Hall (“The Town”) Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown from “Stranger Things” and Brian Tyree Henry. What’s eating the big green lizard is Florida. It’s not Mar-a-Lago, the maskless hordes or hanging chads, but a firm called Apex Corp. that makes giant robots – think “Pacific Rim” (2013). Meanwhile, the humans get to fly around in cheesy, neon-lit space pods as they trail Kong, venturing to the earth’s core to retrieve an artifact that will allow him to level the field with the brash lizard. The journey’s a bit of brief psychedelic wonderment, but the buzz is interrupted by some human-hungry fledglings and a radioactive projectile vomit from Godzilla. 

To tell you how the final round goes would be to do a disservice. I can say it’s a worthy climax and, as always with these things, you can be sure the avarice of man has a play in it. And smartly (from a business sense) in this mini-running “MonsterVerse” (two Godzillas, Kong’s “Skull Island” and this) the door’s left open for more.

The Father

14 Mar

‘The Father’: Unforgettable visit with a patriarch who increasingly can’t remember his own family

By Tom Meek Friday, March 12, 2021

In “I Care a Lot,” the recently released Netflix film, Rosamund Pike plays an opportunistic caregiver who imprisons the elderly afflicted with dementia (getting their power of attorney and dumping them in prison-like convalescent homes) and bilks them of their life savings. It’s a slickly made film with a repugnant underbelly – I mean, how can heroes legitimately prey on the weak and infirm? “The Father” stars Anthony Hopkins in a masterclass performance as a memory-challenged senior who may have made a perfect mark for Pike, except for the fact Pike’s deceit took place in our fair Hub and “The Father” unfurls across the pond in England.

What “The Father” also has going for it is Olivia Colman as Anne, the daughter of Hopkins’ aging elder – named Anthony, of all things. Later we see Anne played by Olivia Williams, and Anne’s husband, Paul, is played by Mark Gatiss and then Rufus Sewell. So may Annes, Olivias, Pauls and Anthonys. Is this a Charlie Kaufman film, you might ask. Sure, it’s a bit of a head spin on paper, but it’s masterfully orchestrated by first-time filmmaker Florian Zeller, adapting his stage play. The rooted point of view is that of Anthony’s, so when we first glimmer Paul (Gatiss) in a room in Anthony’s flat it’s as if he’s stumbled upon a burglar – “Who are you?” he barks like a once-feared alpha dog grown long in the tooth. The whole movie proceeds this way, through the eyes of an unreliable narrator; Hopkins’ immersive portrayal helps show what it’s like to see your mental faculties dim in real time. Coleman, so fiery a Queen Anne (that name again) in “The Favourite” (2018), is somber, soulful and deeply compassionate here. It’s a perfectly subdued performance, as Anne’s life with her own growing family has been put on hold, in a sense. Her frustration is clear despite being tucked way down as she remains dutiful and supportive, first and always. Sewell’s Paul is not so restrained, allowing frustration and pain to erupt into anger.

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Vax Appointments made easy by Parent initiative

14 Mar

In overcoming obstacles of vaccination signups, parent volunteers were teachers’ secret weapon

By Tom MeekFriday, March 12, 2021

A sidewalk chalking at The Maria L. Baldwin School in the Agassiz neighborhood shows “love and encouragement” from parents, educators say. (Photo: Tom Meek)

News that educators and staff were eligible for Covid-19 vaccines as of Thursday was welcomed by school district employees, but didn’t address the dreaded task of trying to sign up and actually get an appointment. The horror stories are well documented from Phase 1, when seniors waited hours to sign up, then saw appointments vanish before their eyes as the time to book expired before they could enter required information.

At The Maria L. Baldwin School in the Agassiz neighborhood, that burden was lifted by an initiative led by parents Amanda Steenhuis, Nina Farouk and Angela Wong.

To date, the trio have booked appointments for more than 30 of the school’s 90-person faculty and staff, putting together a toolkit of best practices, hacks and key contacts with a central spreadsheet to help with the mobilization. Steenhuis called the work “relatively easy” – but scoring appointments means waking at 3 or 4 a.m. to get online, while still getting the kids off to school and taking care of other daily responsibilities.

“We found that it really took two to three dedicated volunteers searching at 4 to 6 a.m. for best results,” Farouk said. “Although over 20 people volunteered for the early morning, wake-ups were tough.”

Steenhuis, a defense attorney, said she’s texting friends, fellow parents and collaborators all day about vaccine appointments. “We call ourselves the Scheduling Psychoz,” she said.

“I want to cry”

The effort is not the first or only of its kind. Steenhuis, the parent of a third-grader in North Cambridge, learned of the idea from friends doing the same in Arlington and Lexington. Farouk, who has two boys at the school, saw similar efforts on Facebook. The two and Wong united and floated the idea by principal Heidi Cook, who embraced the effort.

The effort has resonated with the school and the community. “I don’t think the teachers would have gotten through it without the parent-led initiative,” family liaison Susan Tiersch said. The volunteers were thanked by one faculty member who, hearing the news of a scheduled appointment, told them, “I want to cry, what a wonderful way to start my day.”

“It feels amazing to know that you’ve helped someone access the vaccine,” Steenhuis said.

Parents supporting educators

More sidewalk chalkings at The Maria L. Baldwin School. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Parent-led initiatives in general have been a big boost to morale and the community during the pandemic, Tiersch said. “When we came back to school,” she said of the return to in-person classes for younger students, “parents had chalked up the sidewalk with messages of love and encouragement.” Parents last year also assembled 90 gift bags for Christmas in addition to the typical work of a parent appreciation week.

The difficulties of getting educator vaccinations may be about to ease.

“Hopefully things will get better with the site going live tomorrow,” Steenhuis said of online booking improvements promised for Saturday, “but where’s the fun in that?”

“We’ll still be up at 4 a.m. searching for those CVS appointments,” Steenhuis said.

Chaos Talking

11 Mar

‘Chaos Walking’: On this sci-fi New World, displays of masculinity are clear, dangerous

By Tom Meek Thursday, March 4, 2021

On a far distant planet two centuries into the future, a colony of humans lives in what feels like a Western frontier town atop a forested hilltop. Verdant and inviting like the Adirondacks or British Columbia’s Northwest Pacifica, this is some great outdoor space. The humans in “Chaos Walking,” however, are at war with the planet’s indigenous species, known as the Spackle. It’s an interesting, and I guess, apt name, as the tar-textured, obsidian-colored humanoids look something like sculpture park art more than anything threatening – I feel like I’ve seen them around the grounds of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.

Throughout the film we hardly ever see any of the wall patch-named menace, besides one or two encounters. No, the evil here comes in the form of other humans. David Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) – make that Mayor Prentiss – presides over Prentisstown, seemingly the only outpost on the planet. The main things to note about Prentisstown is there are no women, and all the men have digital Pig-Pen dust clouds over their heads called “The Noise,” which basically is whatever’s going on in their mind. What’s that, you say? Imagine going to your boss to ask for a raise and the request is promptly denied due to “tough times,” so you politely say, “Thanks for hearing me out, maybe next year?” as your Noise blurts, “Bastard, you knew I just had a kid, you told me you would bump me up two years ago and you just got a 20 percent bonus for holding down costs? Such a liar!” Awkward and dicey moments happen. (So what of the title? Would not “Chaos Talking” make more sense?) Some of the men can mute their Noise, though; others, including the mayor, can turn it into a sonic shockwave of sorts or project doppelgängers.

“Chaos Walking” is very much a Western in construct, a sci-fi crossover like “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011). The men have blasters, ride horses and are draped in Viking fur dusters, if ever such a thing existed. The reason there are no women, we’re told (like much in Prentisstown, it comes from the lips of the mayor), is that they couldn’t handle The Noise and that the Spackle targeted them. There’s also, across a valley dell, a husk of a gigantic space ship that holds some answers. No one seems curious enough to seek them, and of course, the mayor doesn’t want anyone to go looking.

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