The Irishman

15 Nov

‘The Irishman’: De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel – Scorsese saga gets the ol’ mob back together

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Al Pacino edges Robert De Niro by one with eight Oscar nominations, but De Niro has taken home two of the coveted gold bald statues to Pacino’s one. The pair are two of the greatest actors of a winding-down generation who, in “The Irishman,” the latest from mob movie maestro Martin Scorsese, get a shot at putting a crowning jewel on their storied careers. Both had parts in Frances Ford Coppola’s timeless “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), in which De Niro played the youthful version of Vito Corleone (gold statue numero uno) and Pacino played his future son, Michael – and the two were never onscreen together. Some 20 years later they shared the screen as cat and mouse in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995) with Pacino’s dogged cop getting the better of De Niro’s quiet criminal. Here, where the two play real-life mob enforcer Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), there’s a something of a payback. (To do full and accurate accounting, the icons took a hit for their part in the tepid 2008 cop drama “Righteous Kill.” Not that you needed to know, but.)

Much will be made of the (near) three-and-a-half-hour runtime of “The Irishman,” but it goes by in a blip as it hops around a 50-year period, with much of the focus on the Hoffa years – the early ’60s to 1975, when the labor lord went missing. The cause and culprit remain an American mystery, though Scorsese and his talented screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) work from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses” to offer up a theory with strong conviction (Brandt’s book was based on interviews with Sheeran, who died in 2003). The implied question of the book’s title is a polite way to ask a tough guy if he does hits; a casual “yes” is how De Niro’s Frank responds in the film. Continue reading

Interview with Local Filmmakers of “The Rabbi Goes West”

15 Nov

‘Rabbi Goes West’ on mission to Montana, filmmakers following to close out festival

 

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North Cambridge resident Gerald Peary knows a lot about film. He’s been a critic for more than 40 years and a film studies professor and curator for more than a quarter-century, and is about to premiere his third documentary feature, “The Rabbi Goes West,” Sunday night at the Somerville Theatre. The film – co-directed with Peary’s wife, Amy Geller, it follows a Chabad rabbi who moves from Brooklyn, New York, to Bozeman, Montana – closes out this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival, playing this week and last at the Brattle Theatre and other locations.

The reason for 34-year-old Chaim Bruk’s relocation is a mission to bring his brand of Judaism to the American West by placing a mezuzah (an encased prayer offering) on the door of every Montana Jew – not a large population. Along the way Bruk encounters resistance from within the Jewish community, and more frighteningly, threats from neo-Nazis.

“I wanted to make a film which spoke to my Judaism,” Peary said. “I’m the most secular Jew, who doesn’t attend synagogue but knows who all the Jewish writers, athletes, et cetera, are. I asked myself, ‘What do I like about Judaism?’ I like mezuzahs – the scrolls put up on Jewish doorposts including inside a verse from Deuteronomy. Having a mezuzah on your door tells the world you’re Jewish, and it’s a big ‘fuck you’ to Hitler, Nazis and Neo-Nazis. ‘Jews are here!’”

“The Rabbi Goes West” co-directors Amy Geller and Gerald Peary.

“Anyway, I read on the Internet about a Hasidic rabbi who has a pledge to put a mezuzah on the door of very Jew in the state of Montana – that’s 2,000 Jews in a state 14 times larger than Israel. I called up Rabbi Chaim Bruk in Bozeman, Montana, and he invited Amy out to film him putting up mezuzahs. The rest is our movie,” Peary said.

Geller co-directed “The Guys Next Door” (2016), a documentary about a gay male couple raising daughters, and Peary said he was delighted to work with a partner who is a “brilliant, talented producer first, and second, knows documentaries inside and out.”

“She was also incredibly demanding about our film,” Peary said, “never letting go of any facet of the movie until she felt it was perfect.“ During production, Peary said most nights they would discuss and argue about the film over dinner and while going to bed. “That was all exhausting,” he said, “but if the movie is really good, it’s because of the intensity of our collaboration.”

Over the years, Peary has penned for several alt-weeklies in the area (“Real Paper” and “Boston Phoenix” – both sadly defunct), taught film studies at Suffolk University and continues to run the Cinemathèque program at Boston University and contribute to The Arts Fuse. His first film, “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism” (2009), which Geller co-produced, served as something of a bittersweet elegy for iconic film critics Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris (both died in the short years following) and poetically pondered the fate and value of film criticism. In 2015, his “Archie’s Betty” explored the roots of the comic book town of Riverdale in Haverhill, where Archie creator Bob Montana had attended high school.

Peary doesn’t think making movies affects what he writes when easing back into the critic’s chair – something Ebert also did, having famously penned Russ Meyers’ bit of 1970s kink, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”

“Everyone making movies has endless hardship stories, especially about the financing part in a country which doesn’t support the arts in any way. But it’s ultimately what’s on screen that counts, and only what counts,” Peary said. “I’ve always been a tough critic with high demands for cinema, and I remain that way.”

The Report

15 Nov

‘The Report’: It’s CIA ‘enhanced interrogation’ put to post-9/11 test in page-turner of a movie‘The Report’: It’s CIA ‘enhanced interrogation’ put to post-9/11 test in page-turner of a movie

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Scott Z. Burns has been mostly known as a screenwriter on such Steven Soderbergh projects as “The Informant!” (2009), “Contagion” (2011) and “Side Effects” (2013). Here, in this dark delve into recent U.S. misdeeds, Burns not only writes but takes the director’s chair, with Soderbergh as producer. The simplistic title “The Report” represents something more complex and foreboding – “The Torture Report,” with that middle word crossed off as soon as it spills across the screen in the opening credits. The report in question concerns waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11, and is deeply redacted by the CIA.

If you haven’t seen “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant take on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, there’s a scene early on demonstrating the use of the interrogation techniques. It’s throughly unpleasant, and“The Report” dials the discomfort up from a 9 to, say, an 11. The film begins with U.S. Senate aide and researcher Dan Jones (Adam Driver) consulting with a lawyer about possibly treasonous charges against him for “relocating” a CIA document, then winds back to when Jones, who toiled in counterintelligence after college, lands on the staff of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and is tasked to lead a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee probe into the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11.

It’s mostly a paper trail chase, but a riveting one – think “All the President’s Men” (1976) replete with a mini-me version of Deep Throat. Jones and his team are granted access to documents in a secure basement vault on CIA turf, but no documents are to leave the chamber, and Jones and associates aren’t allowed to interview any of the operatives involved. Meanwhile Feinstein (Annette Bening), solemn and serious, applies pressure to agency leaders under the Bush and Obama regimes, finding the desire for it all to go away is clearly bipartisan.

Through documents (which lead to dramatizations of events) we learn of contractors James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), slithering sorts and former military intel who sell a fictitious (or composite) CIA honcho named Bernadette (Maura Tierney) on enhanced interrogation even without proven results. From the PowerPoint presentation alone, viewers’ eyebrows will raise, but for Bernadette it’s a key weapon in the war on terrorism – Geneva Conventions be damned. As a pair, Mitchell and Jessen are something of a disturbing chuckle, lapping up taxpayer-bought scotch aboard jets and going about their business like Kidd and Wint in the Bond flick “Diamonds are Forever” (1971). Through it all Tierney’s dutiful top cop promises results to her higher-ups and sits and watches the heinous shenanigans (naked men being beaten and sleep deprived by heavy metal music played at eardrum-bursting levels) with cold steely resolve, forever waiting.

The definition of “torture,” as explained in the film, is complicated: It turns out that if you can extract information that can save lives, how you got it doesn’t matter; if not, enhanced interrogation is a human rights violation, and you’ll be left out to dry. Burns orchestrates some nice juxtapositions in setting: Most of the film takes place in dark, windowless rooms, be it that basement vault where Jones and crew toil away in, the subterranean hellholes on foreign soil where Mitchell and Jessen perform their dirty deeds or the soulless conference room on Capital Hill that serves as a boxing ring for Feinstein and CIA Director John Brennan (Ted Levine).

From top to bottom, the performances impress. Bening shines as the fiery Feinstein demanding accountability, and Linda Powell brings similar intensity as loyal Feinstein staffer Marcy Morris; John Hamm adds rational cool as Denis McDonough, the Obama chief of staff trying to hold the middle ground. Of course, the film hangs from Driver’s dogged research wonk, whose focus and commitment to the task and idealism is imbued with a heaviness and signs of fraying over the long-fought years. Words matter – in this case, a very specific one.

Ford v Ferrari

13 Nov

‘Ford v Ferrari’: Keen to outrace the Italians, team’s truer enemy is signing their paychecks

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Friendship and faith abound in this take on the fast and furious arms race between an automotive giant and chic auto boutique on the boot of Italy. Back in the late ’50s, Carroll Shelby won the grueling Le Mans 24-hour auto race, something few Americans up to that point had ever done, as the race had long been dominated by Team Ferrari. After winning Le Mans, Shelby (Matt Damon) is informed of a cardiovascular condition that will prevent him from racing while Ford, the mega conglomerate, is looking for ideas to jump-start the brand. The automaker’s upper echelon, painted as a collection of stiff, square suits, has recently kicked off the Mustang line – thanks to Lee Iacocca, played by Jon Bernthal – but wants to appeal hipper to the blossoming Boomer generation by taking down the glamorous and glorious Ferrari team at the French-hosted, daylong drive fest. For the cause, and for a lean and efficient approach, Ford taps the maverick Shelby to build car and team.

Based on true events, “Ford v Ferrari” revs across the finish line mostly because of the yin and yang relationship between the affable Shelby and his driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), and the external pressures put on them by Ford. Ken’s a hothead and a family man, and both he and Shelby face crushing financial pressures – over at shop Shelby, the renowned race car driver sells the same sleek collector’s item to multiple buyers on the same given day, with the mantra “Get the check but don’t let them drive away with it.” Extreme auto wonks Shelby and Miles go about their work with innate knowhow, lightening and quickening the car – Ford loads the initial GT with a clunky computer for diagnostics, which Miles unceremoniously rips out and opts for scotch tape and yarn to determine drag. As it turns out, it’s Ford that’s the film’s biggest villain with higher-up Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas, nailing the smarminess) a creepy control freak sharking around who wants Miles out (he’s not a Ford man) and Shelby to bow to him on every decision. Even more telling is Ford’s botched acquisition of Ferrari (viva la Fiat!) and the overbearing, near Trumpian portrait of Beebe’s boss, CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts).

Directed serviceably by James Mangold (“Logan” and “Girl, Interrupted”) “Ford v Ferrari” marks one of the better (not that there’s a bevy) of recent racing flicks. It’s akin to Ron Howard’s surprising “Rush” back in 2013 as it careens along the roadway of friendship and rivalry at top speed. The race scenes and era are recreated impeccably, but “Ford v Ferrari” goes on a bit too long (two and a half hours) for its own good. Damon’s game thinker and Bale’s mercurial Brit carry the film from start to finish with a juicy contribution from Letts (the scene in which Shelby takes Ford II for a spin in the GT40 is priceless, though a bit over the top) and a more somber and uplifting turn from Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ wife, Mollie. Bernthal’s Iacocca, however, feels a bit lost as the film seems to wrestle with the icon’s legacy and complicity in Ford II’s tyrannical leadership. I’m sure the scion’s family and the current corporate brass at the automaker may have different takes; as told, the division from within proves the biggest obstacle to job No. 1.

 

Of Fox and Disney in 02138

12 Nov

Favorite cinemas in Harvard, Davis squares are unaffected – so far – as Mouse cages Fox

By Tom Meek

Repertory theaters see cause for concern at Disney’s new control over decades’ worth of Fox films, says Ned Hinkle, creative director at Harvard Square’s Brattle Theatre. (Photo: The Brattle Theatre)

The launch of the Disney+ streaming service next week may be good for stay-at-home watchers of the Mouse’s classics and Pixar films, “The Simpsons” and tourists in the “Star Wars” and Marvel universes, but it also could shake up repertory cinemas that screen titles such as “All About Eve,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Revenant,” “Alien,” the original “Planet of the Apes” and Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” – including Harvard Square’s Brattle Theatre and the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

Disney, which acquired 20th Century Fox for $71 billion this year, seems to be quietly locking away the studio’s trove of 100 years of classics into its “vault,” Vulture reported last month. Disney did not announce a policy, but the sudden cancellation of booked screenings of Fox films (“The Omen” and “The Fly”) at theaters around the country sparked panic through the cinematic community that the movies might become no longer be available for exhibition.

One common theory is that Disney doesn’t want a current product (a new film such as the upcoming “Frozen II”) to compete against one of its classic/repertory films (say, “Fantasia” or “Bambi”).

“I understand the rationale might be to send people to Disney’s streaming service,” said Ian Judge, manager of Frame One’s Somerville Theatre. “We had dealt with this issue with Disney before they purchased Fox, and in order to get Disney repertory we had to have them reclassify Somerville as a repertory house in their system, which means we no longer play new Disney product there.”

That means that you’ll see only Disney-owned classics in Davis Square; new films from the company play at Frame One’s Capitol Theatre in Arlington. “We have been lucky to have that option, but for single locations, it’s putting them in a tough spot,” Judge said. 

The Brattle happens to be one of those single locations. “At the moment,” said Ned Hinkle, creative director at the Brattle, “this is not an issue for the Brattle – or any other purely repertory cinema – but having such a large corporate entity in charge of such a huge swath of cinema culture has everyone on edge.” Hinkle echoed Vulture’s concern of “not knowing” Disney’s long-term plans for popular repertory titles such as “The Princess Bride,” “Fight Club” and “Aliens” and other entries on Fox’s vast slate. The academically affiliated Harvard Film Archive is another “single location” repertory house that is not affected.

The one Fox film that Disney is keeping its paws off: Late-night cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which has had runs at the shuttered cinemas in Harvard Square and at the Apple Cinema at Fresh Pond (a nonrepertory theater) and is slated to play AMC’s non-rep Boston Common theater Saturday. But “Rocky Horror” has no Disney product to compete with.

More will likely become known as Disney+ launches, but for now, here, let the projectors roll.

Cambridge goes to 20 mph

30 Oct

Nearly four-fifths of city’s streets turn 20 mph with installation of 660 signs come November

 

Speed limit signs for 25 mph will become more rare in Cambridge this fall, as nearly 80 percent of streets fall to a 20 mph limit. (Photo: Acquaforte via Pixabay)

Beginning in November, the city will begin to reduce speed limits on nearly 80 percent of streets in Cambridge to 20 mph from the statewide 25 mph. The move comes as part of the city’s commitment to its Vision Zero strategy to reduce road deaths.

If a 5 mph reduction seems insignificant, a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that pedestrians are almost half as likely to be killed or seriously injured if struck by a car traveling 25 mph versus a car traveling 30 mph.

The city enacted the measure in January when looking to expand areas designated as “safety zones,” which had been reserved primarily for roads passing by schools and senior centers. The rollout will see 660 “Safety Zone” signs erected starting in East Cambridge and spreading west over a loose three-month period. The map will be updated to reflect progress as the project moves along.

“We’ve heard concerns about speeding from people throughout the Cambridge community,” said Joseph Barr, director of the city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department. “Reducing the speed limit is an important step toward addressing those concerns. This change will also inform the way that we design our streets and help support our ongoing traffic calming efforts.”

Nate Fillmore, of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, speaks about road safety to the City Council in February 2018. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Bicyclists, who have testified to feeling at risk from sharing roads with speeding cars, embraced the announcement. “Changing to the lower speed limit is critical,” said Steve Bercu, a Cambridge resident and member of the board of directors of the Boston Bicyclist Union, “in that it impacts the design speed of all projects going forward.” Nate Fillmore, of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, was more direct on the matter of design: “This change needs to be followed up on with citywide changes to the built environment that reflect the new speed, including narrower lanes, raised crosswalks and protected bicycle lanes on major streets wherever possible.”

One city councillor backing the initiative, Quinton Zondervan, hailed the move. “This will make our city much safer for vulnerable road users, allowing more people to walk and bike, leading to less pollution and a healthier community,” Zondervan said.

Addressing concerns of residents discussed on area listservs, vice mayor Jan Devereux added, “Of course, we will need enforcement to put teeth into this desire to slow down drivers – the lack of speed enforcement is another complaint I hear often. Automated enforcement by camera could help, and the council is on record in support of [a bill] pending on Beacon Hill.” Matters of privacy have always been a concern with camera use enforcement, though it’s the primary mechanism in place for cars without toll transponders on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The big difference between the reduction to 25 mph from 30 mph made optional statewide a few years ago and this city reduction to 20 mph is that signs are needed to mark the deviation from the statewide default.

Enforcement, the city said, would be data driven as it always has been. “When in doubt, go 20 mph,” said the communication from the city.

Jojo Rabbit

26 Oct

‘Jojo Rabbit’: Hitler Youth’s imaginary friend, true enemy battle for territory in his affections

 

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“Jojo Rabbit” is something you’re not likely prepared to see – and that’s a good thing. The best way I can lay it down: It’s as if Wes Anderson did Hitler. That’s accurate but not entirely fair, because it’s written and directed by by Taika Waititi, a creative stylist in his own right with the vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) and the grand uber-hero crackup, “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) – probably the only Marvel film Scorsese and Coppola might tolerate – to his credits. “Jojo Rabbit” takes place in Germany on the eve of major turns at the end of the war, and Hitler, played with grand, goofy gaiety and menace by Waititi himself, factors large into the dark satire about a 10-year-old boy coming of age during complicated times (to put it mildly).

We catch up with Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he heads off to a Hitler Youth boot camp for a weekend. He’s a proud loyalist and, because dad’s gone missing, his male surrogate is the führer himself. Talk about an unholy and unhealthy imaginary friend, but Waititi, who is half Maori and half Jewish, plays the part with a deft, humorous touch, giving Hitler a warm, avuncular sheen while not letting him off the hook for, well, everything.

The leporine tag of the title comes from that boot camp, where the undersized Jojo botches a test of manhood and is tagged a “scared little rabbit.” The best part about the camp is that we get Sam Rockwell as a snarky, demoted officer running things and Rebel Wilson as his chortling assistant – “Get your things together, kids, it’s time to burn some books!” Back at home, Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t quite share her son’s all-things-Aryan zeal. Then there’s that someone hiding in the walls: Turns out mom and dad are anti-Nazi propagandists, and the older girl living in a secret compartment upstairs is Jewish, and being sheltered by mom. Jojo discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) and begins to study her (keeping a science journal detailing “the Jewish beast,” which, while shocking and telling, also becomes a major turning point in the film). As the interviews progress, a friendship begins to take seed. They never let Rosie know that Jojo knows, but in passing Jojo tells his pal Yorki (Archie Yates, whose round-faced exuberance makes him an infectious scene stealer) he’s “captured one,” and even Rockwell’s officer. But no one really believes him or cares, as the Third Reich has begun to crumble.

Beyond the wide-eyed  transformation of its young protagonist, the heart and humanity of “Jojo Rabbit” radiates through its women. Since she’s donned Lycra in the Marvel Universe and teamed up for freaky times with Luc Besson (“Lucy”), filmgoers might have forgotten ScarJo’s emotive resonate from past immersions into nuanced roles of cold alien bait (“Under the Skin”) or a dislocated American in Japan (“Lost in Translation”). She carries the part of a conflicted mother fully. You know her Rosie detests sending her son off to boot camp, but does so not only because of the bigger forces at play, but because she’s an adoring mother trying to support her progeny as best she can. McKenzie, who gave such a mature and central performance in the off-the-grid drama “Leave No Trace” (2017), ups her stock here. Her character’s somber reflectiveness and innate compassion go a long way in disarming Jojo’s regime-first reactiveness. The scenes of the two communicating indirectly while connecting on a personal level build subtly and effectively, offsetting the mad world outside.

I’m not sure if there’s such adroit, slapstick skewering in “Caging Skies,” the book by Christin Leunens on which the film is based, but in Waititi’s World War II universe, shouts of “Heil Hitler” – initially shocking – ultimately become something of a comic refrain, like, say, in a Mel Brooks movie, and Rockwell, Wilson and Waititi play their deplorables with over-the-top, nod-and-wink perfection. The material is equal parts grim and hysterical (especially the debate over which of the Allied forces are worse to humans and dogs – Americans, Russians or the British), and folk will likely seize on comparisons with “The Death of Stalin” (2017) due to the era, comedic style and subject. It’s only natural, but “Jojo Rabbit” delivers a palpable human story that touches as we laugh and the world around explodes. And somehow David Bowie and the Beatles find their way in.