Of Bike Lanes and Politics

4 Oct

With the installation of protected bike lanes comes a fast-moving issue for council race

By Tom Meek Friday, October 1, 2021

A bicyclist travels in a quick-build protected bike lane in Central Square. (Photo: MassAve4 Impacts Analysis)

A springtime study about bike lanes replacing on-street parking continues to send out shock waves, and is now playing a role in November’s elections.

Citizens groups have been formed, petitions are circulating and candidates are getting endorsements around the MassAve4 Impact Analysis report and other issues relating to the city’s Cycling Safety Ordinance. Passed by the City Council in 2019 and updated in October 2020, it calls for around 25 miles of protected bike lanes to be installed throughout Cambridge within five to seven years.

When released in April, the MassAve4 report triggered panic among business owners and residents who feared that nearly all on-street parking spaces would be removed in favor of quick-build protected bike lanes along Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard Square to Dudley Street, including Porter Square. The city quickly assured that it was only studying the effects of achieving the ordinance’s goals with quick-build options such as flex posts, signs and road markings rather than curb cuts, sidewalk and road surface alterations that would demand more planning, cost and resources and be less likely to meet the law’s timeline.

The city has not released a plan, but by May the city manager expects to identify where quick-build bike lanes will work and get City Council approval for a timeline on installing other kinds of bike infrastructure, according to the MassAve4 project page. Outreach and community engagement will be part of the process. If the city fails to have a plan approved in 2023, quick-build lanes along the corridor will be mandated by the ordinance.

Mass Ave. 4 All

In the interim, the Porter Square Neighborhood Association, several businesses along the corridor – The Abbey, Guitar Stop and Ward Maps among them – and the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group have banded together to form the Mass Ave. 4 All group, which is sponsoring a petition to reject the impact analysis report and to urge the city to try again on reimagining Massachusetts Avenue. Members have posted alternative design suggestions on the site and encouraged residents to contact City Council members and project planners.

Cambridge Bicycle Safety pushed for the ordinance but found the MassAve4 report troubling.

“Our vision is for there to be continuous protected bicycle lanes for the full length of Massachusetts Avenue,” member Nathanael Fillmore said, “as well as improvements to ensure efficient and reliable bus service, a safe environment for pedestrians, a thriving business corridor and a pleasant and welcoming place for all residents to spend time.”

Bicyclists rally for safe infrastructure at an Oct. 17, 2016, rally at City Hall, before the creation of a city Cycling Safety Ordinance. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Fillmore praised the city for its change of approach when kicking off the northernmost stage of the ordinance’s charge, with protected bike lanes from Dudley Street to the city’s border with Arlington at the Alewife Brook Parkway. For that, the city did not issue an impact report, but held an online community meeting to share designs concepts – which also showed a majority of on-street parking being eliminated, but with 15-minute pickup and loading zones during certain hours within a bus lane; and with metered parking moved to side streets in key locations. Before the Sept. 14 presentation, the city reached out to businesses along the stretch to get their input and hear concerns.

Andreas Wolfe, the city’s street design project manager, said Friday that “targeted outreach is taking place as part of the Dudley Street-to-Alewife Brook Parkway section for businesses along that section,” and Porter Square outreach would follow before that project takes place. The stretch from Dudley Street to Alewife Brook Parkway will be complete before the MassAve4 project, because it is entirely quick build and there are no overhead catenary wires powering buses to contend with.

Some felt the process is inadequate. “As a business owner that will be directly affected by this rushed and poorly planned project to install much-needed protected bike lanes, I was never given a real voice,” said Robert Harris, owner of the Season to Taste restaurant at 2447 Massachusetts Ave. “Instead there was a virtual meeting to talk about thoughts and feelings, with 99 percent of the decisions already made, which only highlights the flawed process for this project.”

Save Mass Ave

In the wake of that meeting, the group Save Mass Ave formed and launched a website with materials that tout the approach taken by Mass Ave. 4 All but also promotes candidate for City Council who have not signed onto a Cambridge Bicycle Safety pledge to support the Cycling Safety Ordinance. That includes one incumbent, E. Denise Simmons, and several challengers for council seats.

Save Mass Ave also has its own petition calling for “meaningful engagement and planning with all stakeholders.”

“There are several petitions,” said Ruth Ryals, president of the Porter Square Neighbors Association, referring to the groups’ overlapping online and paper versions. “It is messy.”

On the social media site Nextdoor, some North Cambridge residents and others unhappy about the loss of parking and a process say they feel they don’t have a voice, while bike advocates such as CBS leverage their power disproportionately to control and influence elections and policy. Boston area cycling advocacy groups such as the Boston Cyclist Union promote and canvass for city council members and candidates who support bike safety policy and bike infrastructure as a priority.

Business concerns

This isn’t the first time the rollout of bike lanes has been contentious. Back in 2017 there was pushback from businesses and residents on Cambridge Street to the installation of protected bike lanes that took away some on-street parking. Though the city says businesses have come through bike changes fine in Harvard and Central squares, some have seen big drop-offs in walk-in traffic resulting from a lack of parking, said Guitar Stop’s Jeanne Oster at a Wednesday meeting of the North Cambridge Stabilization Committee.

The data can be confusing, though. City surveys show that in Porter Square, for example, the No. 1 item businesses said would help them was more parking, while 62 percent of respondents said they came to shop in the area by foot, with biking accounting for another 19 percent and the MBTA for 16 percent. Motor vehicles checked in at 33 percent.

And for all the infrastructure already rolled out, outdoor dining spaces on Massachusetts Avenue have been retained in their entirety, Fillmore pointed out.

The pledge, which has been signed by seven councillors running for reelection and six council challengers, “is important to ensure continued implementation of the ordinance on schedule and without delay that will lead to further injuries or deaths,” Fillmore said.

“Certainly the bike pledge has an impact [politically], particularly among the challengers who have to decide publicly which side they’re on – we already know where the incumbents stand,” said councillor Quinton Zondervan, a signer of the pledge.

Political overlap

But it can be difficult to draw lines around politicians’ policies. In addition to first-time candidate Tonia Hicks appearing on both of the new groups’ lists, there are candidates such as Paul Toner – who did not sign the pledge but is not opposed to bike lanes or the ordinance’s overall goal of separated bike lanes and safety for all. “I agree with the goals of the Cambridge Cycling Safety Ordinance,” he said in an email, “I believe there needs to be flexibility on the construction timeline in order to gather input from relevant stakeholders, such as neighborhood residents and businesses.”

Separated bike lane infrastructure continues to be implemented – last month it went in along the Mid-Cambridge section of Massachusetts Avenue from City Hall to where Massachusetts Avenue and Mount Auburn Street meet in Harvard Square.

Zondervan thinks there is going to be a natural shift away from trips by single drivers with the arrival of autonomous vehicles and microtransit options such as Bluebikes and electric scooters. “Just as we’ve always said,” Zondervan said, “if you build it, they will come. As we make it safer and easier for people to bike instead of drive, more and more people will choose to do that, and that’s exactly what we need. Also exciting about Massachusetts Avenue in front of City Hall is the clearly marked bus stop lane. It’s exciting to see us prioritize not just bike lanes but also bus lanes. We’re really heading in the right direction prioritizing public transit over private vehicle transport, and I’m just really happy about that and look forward to more to come.”

No Time to Die

1 Oct

‘No Time to Die’: Daniel Craig’s final film as Bond is big but not great, mopey but not meaningful

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 30, 2021

There’s so much you want to love in “No Time to Die,” the fifth and final Bond for Daniel Craig, but at 2 hours, 43 minutes, it’s a slog. Scenes go on too long, and the Craig films have over time gotten more and more into the melodrama of being Bond and his emotional attachments and far-reaching backstories. It’s counterintuitive to the Bonds that defined the franchise (see Connery and Moore) through caricatured male machismo and kitschy, cruel tropes – square-jawed derring-do, lethal techie gadgets hidden in a shoe and a litany of cheesy one-liners that sound brilliant when served up as straight as a martini garnish.

In the latest and 25th Bond, that’s all long gone. Everything is about an agent’s inner turmoil, with some deft action sequences stirred in. Craig, who’s physicality helped define the Bond of the 21st century, also notched an emotional awareness that has largely been absent since the one-and-done George Lazenby’s 00 took up the mantle of monogamy and got hitched in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969). Here Bond is retired and living off the grid on a West Indian island until the arrival of old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and a yuppie attache (Billy Magnussen), who’s got a bit of a Jared Kushner thing going on. Leiter wants James to help locate a package in Cuba kidnapped by Spectre with the intent of mass producing nanobot assassins – basically a DNA-targeted virus that gets passed from person to person until it finds its mark. The bigger fear is that someone could leverage the technology to wipe out whole ethnicities or geographic areas.

Yes, as with any Bond, the world hangs in the balance. Some of the installments are joys, some are wobbly curios or campy time capsules and others are just misfires, but it’s really about the world-hopping journey and execution of spectacle. “No Time to Die” is a humorless Bond in which the past gurgles up continually. In the opener, Bond is about to go off-grid with “Spectre” (2015) love interest Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), but that’s all changed in an intercept by a piranha pool of baddies while on a holiday – and quest to exorcise some of those past ghosts – in the high mountains of Italy. The sequence of turns makes Bond question his trust in Swann. Trust becomes something of a theme that runs throughout the film; later Bond finds out that the newish M (Ralph Fiennes) may be in on the nanobot mess too. Old friend Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) pushes his way into the party as well, seeming more like Hannibal Lecter than Donald Pleasance (the most memorable of all Blofelds, the arch villain who’s made an appearance in a total of nine Bond films) in his restraints. But the madman du jour is a gent with the devilish name of Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) and a disfigured face. It seems these days the only way to cast a viable Bond villain is to gun for an Academy Award-winner (Malek and Waltz have won, and Javier Bardem from “Skyfall”) and shoehorn them into an effete persona with a twisted soul. The best Craig baddie to date came in the form of a man’s man, a guy who did his dirty work with his own two hands. That film was not only the best Craig entry but one of the best Bonds ever. The 00 chapter I speak so highly of, “Casino Royale” (2006) was also Craig’s first, and the demented demon of demise behind the maniacal doings was played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, a capable performer who has even played Hannibal Lecter (TV’s “Hannibal”) with enough nuance and panache to earn Anthony Hopkins’ thumbs-up.

But back to the mission at hand: There’s also a new 007 in the mix, and he’s a she and a non-Caucasian to boot (Lashana Lynch) – something added after the suggestion of Idris Elba in the role triggered such shockwaves? Given a new face under a familiar number, folks will be asking if this is where the franchise is heading. If “No Time to Die” was an audition tape, the jury would be mixed. Lynch is fine, but her agent really doesn’t do much except shadow Bond, and we’re never clear just how good her skills are. She’s an adept pilot and Vespa rider, but that probably isn’t enough to save the world just yet.

How “No Time to Die” plays out will likely matter most to aficionados looking to make connections across the Bond-verse. Those who relished Sean Connery’s brutish charm and chauvinistic irreverence will likely come away disappointed, though the film does have its sizzle and verve and the action sequences – especially that opener in Italy – are crisp and well choreographed, with exceptional aerial photography and camera work in tight confines as the mayhem goes down. Like much in the film, though, they tend to go on too long and never really have the crescendoing showdowns of earlier Bond sagas. Overall, the long-awaited Bond chapter, delayed by Covid and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (HBO’s “True Detective” and “Beasts of No Nation”) with a script contribution from Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) feels like it’s trying constantly to buy purchase between long goodbyes. (Don’t ask, and don’t think about it until after you’ve seen the film.) There’s even a forgettable song by Billie Eilish that make you long for Shirley Bassey. Sadly, this Bond goes out with a muffled pop.

The Many Saints of Newark

30 Sep

‘The Many Saints of Newark’: ‘Sopranos’ prequel pulls off a killer job, a setup you’ll love falling into

By Tom Meek Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Tony Soprano may or may not have been offed in the last episode of the storied mob series “The Sopranos,” but actor James Gandolfini has, sadly, left us. As the crime boss he is and was the show; it would be hard, if not impossible, to have a sequel or a revival without him. With that in mind, what series creator and writer David Chase and director Alan Taylor have done here is craft a prequel with Gandolfini’s son, Michael, in the role of the young Tony Soprano.

If “The Many Saints of Newark” were a Marvel Universe chapter, it would be tagged as an origin story. Thankfully that’s not the case, and Chase’s deep sense of place and roots and attention to historical detail, as well as a battery of brilliant performances, make “Saints” a winning flashback. We begin in the 1960s in the Italian North Ward of Newark, where racial tensions with the neighboring Black working class of the Central Ward are at an all-time high. The big boss of the moment is a colorful yet fading caricature by the name of “Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), just back from the old country with a beautiful young bride (Michela De Rossi, casting shades of Penelope Cruz). As with the HBO show, small happenings have wide and traumatic repercussions. Dick’s take-charge son, Dickie (a dangerously charismatic Alessandro Nivola), covets his old man’s wife, who becomes his mistress and the spur of many bloody actions – she’s Helen of Newark.

Without giving too much away – the twists and turns are a fraught pleasure, as connections to the series abound – there’s a power shift and the younger version of series staple Corrado “Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll) becomes the one holding court, though it’s Nivola’s Dickie calling the shots. The voiceover that drives the film comes from none other than Michael Imperioli’s Christopher, Dickie’s son, reflecting on the fatherly relationship between Dickie and the young Tony because Tony’s dad, Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal) spends more time in jail than at home. Even as a 10-year-old, the young Tony shows seeds of his later self, running numbers at school, rigging tests and later shaking down the ice cream man. The main focus of the film, however, remains Dickie looking to expand operations. One of his primary soldiers, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), an ambitious small-timer from the Central Ward, often sets off Dickie’s associates because of his race. The Newark race riot of 1967, like De Rossi’s beauty, becomes the source of many a plot turn, and a handy excuse to to burn a body in an abandoned auto shop.

“The Many Saints of Newark” (the Italian surname Moltisanti means “many saints”) packs a lot into the riveting rewind and smartly so, but likely would not hit its marks so well without its dead-on casting. Nivola, who’s spent much of his time in supporting roles, really fills the screen and shows his range here. His Dickie, like Imperioli’s Christopher in the series, is a quiet, passionate type with an explosive temper and deep resolve. Odom, so good as Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami” (2020) shifts into a whole other gear here, and impressively so. His Harold’s a cool, calculating sort and makes for a perfect, uneasy pairing with Nivola’s Dickie. Bernthal (“Small Engine Repair,” “Fury”) as the assemblage’s palooka doesn’t get much screen time, but when he does he’s a classic shot of working-class Italiano bravado. Stoll, replete with sheer-shaven pate, deftly holds down the part of the younger Junior, who can’t buy an ounce of respect. Liotta, given his turn in Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990), is perfectly minted for the big, blowsy part of Dick, and actually pulls double duty as Dick’s somber brother in prison for life – a confidant often sought by the younger Dickie. It’s a fantastic male-dominated cast, but the female players stand up and stand out too: De Rossi imbues her sensual, fiery object of desire with vulnerability, and there’s a runaway performance by Vera Farmiga (“The Departed,” “Up in the Air”) as Tony’s mom, prosthetic nose and all. Her Livia feels like a natural dish-throwing extension of Edie Falco’s Carmela from the series. The mother-son bond gets some deep digging here, lending to the adage that guys, made or not, often marry their mothers. The ending of the film is a snug tie-in as well, concluding with that infectious theme song by a British band oddly named Alabama 3.

Cry Macho

18 Sep

Cry Macho’: Eastwood goes across the border with a mission suited for his vigorous 91 years

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 16, 2021

For a concept that’s taken almost 50 years to land on the big screen after a swirl of iterations with big names including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pierce Brosnan attached, “Cry Macho” is likely to register as a disappointment for most. The key to the depth of that letdown is the degree of anticipation you arrive with: This is a Clint Eastwood film, and while the actor has wowed from behind the lens (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Invictus,” to name a few) some of his more recent efforts such as “Jersey Boys” (2014) and “The 15:17 to Paris” (2018) have been weak-kneed by compare.

The film, a neo-western by definition (think “Hell or High Water” or “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”) has a washed-up rodeo star (Eastwood) employed under duress by a Texas ranch owner (Dwight Yoakam) to retrieve his 13-year-old son (Eduardo Minett) from his allegedly abusive, freewheeling mother (Fernanda Urrejola) across the border in Mexico City. It’s a curious setup as Eastwood, now a grandfatherly 91 and a long way from his “Dirty Harry” salad days, is not really the type one might enlist for a mission in which muscle and sinew might be required. But Clint’s Mike Milo is indebted to Yoakam’s rancher for carrying him financially since he broke his back riding a bronc back in the day. Once across the border it’s easy enough to locate mom and the son, Rafa, who dabbles in cockfighting and skirting the law. He also bears troubling welts on his back.

The “Macho” of the title is in fact Rafa’s prize rooster, which may get more screen time than any of his human counterparts – and yes, Clint does make a joke about a man calling his cock “Macho.” The script is littered with several such amiable groaners. Much of the character motivation early on feels disjointed, if not arbitrary, despite being penned by Nick Schenk from the 1975 N. Richard Nash novel), who’s notched solid collaborations with Eastwood in the past (“Gran Torino” and “The Mule”). The film gets about halfway in before Mike and Rafa, holed up in a dusty Mexican village, start to bond in a genuine sense. Mike can’t speak a lick of Spanish, and the police and mom’s goons are searching for the pair. During the lay low, Mike becomes something of the village’s Dr. Dolittle: People bring their ailing pets to him, and he and Rafa make a few pesos breaking wild horses. There’s also a spark of romance with the compassionate cantina owner (Natalia Traven, delivering the best performance in the film) giving them aid and cover. The warring by Rafa’s parents over property and power – a thinly drawn catalyst – just distracts. The ending doesn’t wrap it all up to any satisfactory degree, but there remains those affecting human moments in that remote, dusty Eden.

The Card Counter

10 Sep

The Card Counter’: Poker player has a history, and maybe an appointment to settle old scores

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 9, 2021

Film critic turned screenwriter turned director Paul Schrader has long been busy at the task of plumbing the tumult of men at war with themselves and the rest of the world. Take Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” (Schrader penned this 1976 Martin Scorsese classic) or Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988, another Scorsese collaboration), let alone Schrader’s last critically hailed directorial effort. “First Reformed” (2018), in which Ethan Hawke plays a priest struggling with his faith, sobriety and place in the world. “The Card Counter” is more of the same, and probably most akin to the filmmaker’s unheralded 1992 effort, “Light Sleeper.” The big ante here is the casting of Oscar Isaac (“Ex Machina,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”) as a troubled gambler who goes by the curious pseudonym of William Tell, and Tiffany Haddish as La Linda, something of a muse of the championship poker circuit who matches players with silent backers interested in a cut of the action (50 percent, to be exact).

That’s the deal, but what’s going on under those cards is something more nuanced and darker. We learn early on that Tell has spent almost 10 years in prison. Just what for isn’t readily clear, but we know he used that time to garner the skills of the film’s title. Out of lockup, Tell works casinos methodically, moving about regularly and being careful to take modest winnings and remain under the radar – until he runs into La Linda, who recognizes his talent for what it is. It’s also at one of these random East Coast casinos that Tell wanders into a police and security convention where a lecture is being given by one Maj. John Gordo (Dafoe) on the latest in security technology. It’s there too that a young man named Cirk (Kirk with a “C,” played by Tye Sheridan, best known for his gamer in “Ready Player One”) approaches Tell, slipping him a piece of paper and telling him he knows who he is and that they need to talk. Not to give too much away, but it turns out Cirk’s father, Gordo and Tell were torturers (er, experts in enhanced interrogation techniques) at Abu Ghraib. Gordo, a private contractor who led the operation, could not be prosecuted for crimes on foreign soil; Tell and Cirk’s dad, enlisted men captured posing with the tortured on camera, were not so lucky.

Like the aforementioned Schrader masterworks, “Card Counter” ultimately becomes about redemption, atonement and a sense of justice that’s not congruent with what laws and courts would impose – something Schrader made so indelible with “Taxi Driver.” “Counter” is also loaded with metaphors and a foreboding aural moodiness by Robert Levon Been that becomes the haunting externalization of Tell’s inner turmoil. (Been is frontman for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; his late father, Michael, lead singer of The Call, scored “Light Sleeper.”) Isaac, with his long face, brings an intense heaviness to the part. His Tell is a loner, a man in between who’s not interested in saving himself but in righting the wrongs of the past. La Linda, Cirk and Gordo give him those opportunities in different ways, some willingly, some not. Tell takes Cirk under his wing for that East Coast tour staked by La Linda, who drops in from time to time to check on her “horse.” There’s a deep, instant chemistry between La Linda and Tell, one Schrader smartly pulls back on, turning it into a slow burn with palpable yen and connections that go places in the other’s soul that haven’t been stirred in years. The relationship with Cirk, while effective, often feels like too much of a plot point insert for Tell’s subsequent actions. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise riveting character study, a retooling of Schrader’s seminal motif made wholly new again.

Flag Day

20 Aug

Flag Day’: Penn raises ‘Flim-Flam’ flags aplenty, acting with family in another daughter’s memoir

By Tom Meek Thursday, August 19, 2021

About every five years, Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn takes the director’s chair for a tight focus on those struggling mightily in small arenas. Many of these lo-fi, big-themed efforts come with some heavy-duty thespian firepower. For his directorial debut, “The Indian Runner” (1991), Penn was blessed with a cast that included Viggo Mortensen, David Morse, Charles Bronson, Sandy Dennis and Benicio Del Toro, as well as Dennis Hopper; afterward he teamed up with Jack Nicholson for “The Crossing Guard” (1995) and “The Pledge” (2001). Here the film’s more of a family affair in which Penn’s real-life children, Dylan and Hopper, play his onscreen progeny. The cast has some A-list names too with Regina King, Josh Brolin and Eddie Marsan in the mix, but in parts so small that if you close your eyes for a few seconds you might miss them. 

Adapted from Jennifer Vogel’s 2005 memoir “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life” (script by Jez Butterworth, a co-writer on “Black Mass” and “Ford v Ferrari”), “Flag Day” depicts the tumult of a father-daughter relationship across decades. Penn plays the titular con man, with his daughter portraying the young Jennifer Vogel. The film’s an earnest but rambling mess that draws you in with its shaggy-dog charms and wisps of mystery but pushes you out with jerky POV shifts and scenes of characters just screaming and shouting at each other without saying anything or furthering the narrative – my guess would be improv gone wrong. Told mostly through Jennifer’s gaze, the film occasionally (and jarringly) jumps to Penn’s John off on his own doing some pseudo-sociopathic activity. He has an abode with windows papered up as if he were a vampire, an empty briefcase he takes to his nonexistent job each day and is always looking over his shoulder. Over the years Jennifer often finds John in a “business meetings” with Hell’s Angels-like ruffians from which he often comes out bloodied. John’s a talker, always spinning and not quite dad-of-the-year material, but by comparison with his ex-wife Patty (Katheryn Winnick, “Vikings” and “Big Sky”), a lethargic alcoholic who could not get out of bed in the early years, he seems like a better choice at least to Jennifer. She seeks him out after mom’s creepy new beau tries to crawl into bed with her and mom, in the aftermath, sides with her man.

Just what John is up to is never made clear. It should be a major distraction, but when the late-teens Jennifer comes back to roost with him, the film becomes more about the two of them trying to get a leg up on life together and less about the dubious schemes John sets up while Jennifer is at work (as an intern and then journalist at Minnesota’s City Pages, where I also wrote). The film becomes a bittersweet waltz of hope, heartbreak and delusion, and a deeply intimate one. Penn, embracing the ’70s and ’80s setting, shoots for that lived-in indie look and at times evokes the gritty realism of John Cassavetes; at other, more lyrical turns he projects the dreamy idealism of Terrence Malick. It’s an arty endeavor, but not one that endears.

As far as Penn’s directorial efforts go, “Flag Day” is a step up from his 2016 misfire “The Last Face,” starring then-girlfriend Charlize Theron, his son Hopper and Javier Bardem, but still a lesser effort and a long way away from his 2007 high, “Into the Wild.”

CODA

12 Aug

Coda’: This Child of Deaf Adults is called to sing in a family drama from Cambridge’s Sian Heder

By Tom Meek Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Cambridge Rindge and Latin grad Sian Heder connects old and new with local color and universal language in “Coda,” a heartwarming English-language adaptation of the 2014 French film “La Famille Bélier” about an aurally able girl from a deaf family with a desire to sing. Forget France, we’re in old-school Gloucester for this spin, hanging on the working-class side of town the way Kenneth Lonergan’s award-winning “Manchester by the Sea” (2016) did. It’s a rewarding transposition for us locals.

The acronym of the title is “Children of Deaf Adults.” Here that’s Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones, “High-Rise”) a Gloucester High student who lives with mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin), dad Frank (Troy Kotsur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) – all three deaf. The Rossis are a fishing family; Ruby works the boat early in the morn and, understandably exhausted, nods off in class. Mean, more-well off girls give her a hard time and form a barrier to her afar crush, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), one of the popular kids, but Ruby finds an in when she learns he’s signed up for choir. Ruby, ever singing on the boat and at home, follows suit.

“Coda” moves in a fairly predictable arc, but it does so sans apology and it does so well. Plot threads include the struggles of the the small Gloucester fisherman to remain relevant in changing times and the quiet, ongoing struggle for the hearing-impaired to not be brushed aside. That latter is at once moving and has many clever, gut-tickling moments, such as when Ruby must translate to a doctor about mom and dad’s burning loin issues – Frank signs that his balls are on fire. The doctor explains it’s just jock itch from the sea and humidity, and that the two should lay off sex for a while. That comes as something of a relief for Ruby because mom and dad are usually at it, and loudly so, when friends or Miles stop by.

Oscar winner Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”) is the big name here and she’s brash, funny and vulnerable as Jackie, but the real tour de force is Kotsur as Frank. The two have perfect chemistry, blasting heavy metal out of their pickup – another one of the many cringeworthy moments Ruby endures with warmth in her heart. The two actors are deaf in real life, as is Durant (effective as the big brother arriving into manhood). Heder was determined to use hearing-impaired actors not only for authenticity but because the are underrepresented on film.

Heder who struggled as an actor after graduating Carnegie Mellon University, got a CV bounce and access from writing on “Orange is the New Black.” Her directorial debut “Tallulah” (2016) was another tight, situation-driven female journey staring Ellen Page as an adrift young woman who intervenes dramatically on behalf of the toddler of an inattentive and over-privileged mother. Both films are deeply nested in their protagonist’s view and dilemmas. “Coda” is a more typical drama, but it’s also shows the director deepening her art. She and the cast hit all the right notes, making an old tune hip and catchy again.

Local note: Heder’s parents are local artists Mags Harries and Lajos Héder. Harries is responsible for “Glove Cycle,” the bronze mitts that adorn the endless escalator in the Porter Square T station.

The Suicide Squad

8 Aug

‘The Suicide Squad’: Supervillains born to lose get their chance like James Gunn’s ‘Guardians’

By Tom Meek Wednesday, August 4, 2021

With this semi-reboot of DC’s Suicide Squad concept, the whole riveting potential of Harley Quinn still remains to be realized – and perhaps never will be. “The Suicide Squad,” not to be confused with “Suicide Squad,” is a step up from that disappointing 2016 entry point as well as “Birds of Prey” (2020), the muddled feminist take designed to let Margot Robbie take her Harley out for a wide-open spin. The carrot here is that it’s helmed by James Gunn, the once lo-fi auteur of gore and superhero quirk (“Slither” and “Super”) who rose to mainstream notoriety with the marvelously offbeat Marvel Universe entry “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). It’s wildly intriguing, if curious, to see him on the DC side of things, but what better hand to give a boost to a floundering franchise holding tight to the blood-splattered dress of its all-star player?

That said, Robbie’s maniacally mercurial – and damn lethal – Quinn is a supporting player here, which is good and bad. Good in that she’s a lightning bolt of frenetic energy in every scene she’s in. Bad in that when she’s not onscreen, the film ebbs noticeably. Also, at more than two hours, the film feels way too long for what it is. It begins with the snazzy pop that Gunn was able to maintain throughout the entirety of his two “Guardians” chapters as a squad of convicts with special skills (“odd” would be the better word) is led by patriotic jarhead Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Quinn to a beach landing on Corto Maltese, a fictitious South American country. In their charge there’s a Laplander with a catchy accent and a big javelin (Flula Borg), a soldier with detachable arms (Nathan Fillion), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, playing the part again), SNLer Pete Davidson as Blackguard, the fly in the ointment, Gunn regular Michael Rooker with glorious, flowing Edgar Winter-like locks as Savant and a giant CGI weasel. The landing’s something of a D-Day, with few besides Quinn making it to the next stage. 

Gunn, playing with us, rewinds to the assembly of the team by government handler Amanda Waller (Oscar winner Viola Davis, also back again). There we learn that the team, known as Team One, really was a “Suicide Squad”; it was a distraction and fodder so Team Two, led reluctantly by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a dead shot with an arsenal of firearms neatly attached to his body armor, could slip in sans bloodbath. His squad is equally as ragtag, with John Cena growing his acting chops as Peacemaker, a sardonic arms and demolition expert, and the straight-faced Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who can toss toxic dots at adversaries and whose mommy issues nearly upstage Quinn. There’s also a waif known as the Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior) who can summon a horde of rats, and King Shark, aka Nanaue, the half-man, half-shark voiced by Sylvester Stallone and a likable oaf when not chomping on human flesh – I really wanted a Land Shark joke, which would have been justified by Davidson’s inclusion. Speaking of humor, the reason the United States wants to infiltrate Corto Maltese is something called Project Starfish, for an ever-transforming extraterrestrial housed in a castle-like silo by a mad scientist called The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), who has brain bulbs or whatnot sticking out of his head and looks like the unholy fusion of Hellraiser and Doc from the “Back to the Future” films. Getting back to that joke, Peacemaker remarks that “in prison, a starfish is another name for butthole.” He later says he’d eat a beach full of penises to do his duty for country. Yeah, a lot of the gags miss wide, which is why you’re only too happy when Quinn drops back in the game.

From a sociopolitical angle you could argue that the film shines a light on the long-running exploitation of developing Latin countries by U.S. and other Western interests. Naturally, there’s also those home-bred despots looking to fulfill their megalomaniacal whims – the killing of women and children being a moral threshold for some of the Squad, and a shrug and whatever for others. The movie’s supposed to be Elba’s, and while his Bloodsport’s sword-waving with Peacemaker is puckishly good second-tier fun, the shine here is Quinn. No Quinn, no movie. In the grand finale the Squad is confronted with said starfish, something of a cross between a kaiju and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s not a shark jump, but it does underscore the missed opportunity.

Asian Food Aid

31 Jul

Project Restore Us adds 150 families to its work delivering culturally appropriate food support

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 29, 2021

Project Restore Us, launched last year by restaurateurs Tracy Chang of Pagu and Irene Li of Mei Mei Restaurant of Boston, and others to help keep their businesses afloat while feeding the community, has expanded by partnering with the Asian American Resource Workshop and Vietnamese American Initiative for Development. On Sunday, working out of Mâe Asian Eatery storefront in Cambridge, 30 volunteers will cart groceries to an additional 150-plus families in need.

Instead of serving its enticing fusion of Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese, Mâe closes on Sundays – and this is when, Chang, Li and the Project Restore Us team perform their work of kindness.

Mâe is at 781 Main St., in The Port neighborhood between Central and Kendall squares.

One of the concepts behind the project was to provide people with nutritional and culturally appropriate food, replacing the random produce and low-nutrition processed fare that comes from most food pantries. The new partnerships allow Project Restore Us to more strategically deliver culturally germane groceries to area Vietnamese and Latinx families affected by Covid – bolstering the communities and hunger awareness in the face of a troubling uptick of hate crimes against Asians.

“The spike in acute anti-Asian violence has highlighted the importance of our work in combating the persistent violence of immigration and food insecurity that wearies and disempowers our Asian American and other immigrant community members,” said Marena Lin, one of the project’s co-founders with Chang, Li and Lily Huang, director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.

Chang adds that violence toward Asians is not new. “It’s just become more newsworthy during Covid because of the incidents in Atlanta. For instance, my grandparents owned a restaurant in Cambridge (Tokyo Restaurant) from 1988-2000. Multiple times, they were the target of hate crimes. They had a molotov cocktail thrown into their establishment. They were tied up, beaten and robbed on multiple occasions in their homes in Lexington and Winchester,” she said.

The project estimates it has delivered more than 300 tons of food to more than 8,000 households marginalized by the pandemic since May 2020. It plans to send two waves of groceries each month, or as funds dictate. Information is here.

The Green Knight

31 Jul

The Green Knight’: Arthurian odyssey, updated

By Tom Meek Thursday, July 29, 2021

David Lowery’s cinematic adaptation of the late 14th century Middle English chivalric romance (a poem about an odyssey, to be more precise), “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” is a hypnotic wonderment and one of the best films – if not the best – of the year so far. The cast and filmmaking are superb. “The Green Knight” is also the edgiest Medieval rendering since John Boorman’s “Excalibur” (1981) mixed arty filmmaking, sex and dark psychodrama into the cauldron of drama that is King Arthur’s court.

At one point the lady of a castle (Alicia Vikander, “Ex Machina”) offers Sir Gawain (Dev Patel, “Hotel Mumbai”) a book from her vast collection and quips that sometimes she rewrites stories to make them more dramatic and relevant, if so moved. As evidenced by “The Green Knight,” Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon,” “A Ghost Story” and “The Old Man and the Gun”) was so moved, keeping the bones from the anonymous original author but adding a few twists and fantastical flourishes that blur the lines of reality brilliantly and make us question the mind of the protagonist.

The yarn begins with a cozy gathering at the castle of the aged King Arthur (Sean Harris, perfectly delicate, yet commanding) on Christmas Day, as Gawain dreams of knightly fame yet spends most of his time hedonistically with his lover (also played by Vikander) and other “millennials” of the Middle Ages. The merriment (you’d think it would be bawdier, but this is a dour lot) is interrupted by the entity of the film’s title (played by Ralph Ineson), who makes a magnificent entry. Part tree, part man, he looks like something from the mind of Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water”) and issues a challenge to the court for a knight to strike him a blow; a year later, he gets to strike back at the Green Chapel, his place of residence some six days north. Gawain, seeing an opportunity to earn his wings, jumps at the opportunity and lops off the Green Knight’s head. Easy-peasy, right? Not so fast. The Green Knight scoops up the head and rides off laughing. “One year hence,” he shouts.

It’s a long year for Gawain, who balks on the eve of the quest. A sagely Arthur and the desire for knighthood spur him on, and much of the film is Gawain’s journey. Along the way there’s the bloody remains of battle, a puckish young lad (Barry Keoghan, so good in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), a frisky fox, giant women who look like the blown up Joi from “Blade Runner 2049” (2018) and a maiden seeking her head. The grueling sojourn reveals Gawain’s fragility both mentally and physically. He’s not a very apt adventurer, and his chivalry is tested when, starving and near collapse, he arrives at the castle of a twinkle-eyed lord (Joel Edgerton, “Loving”) and his lady (the book-offering Vikander), who welcomes Gawain in and nourishes him. The sexual tension between the three is deeper than Loch Ness, though there’s also the matter of a blindfolded old hag who looms in the corner of every frame during the chapter, ever watching and judging.

The cast is exceptional (including Kate Dickie and Sarita Choudhury as Guinevere and Morgan Le Fay, respectively), but the film is Patel’s, and he shines in the part of a man wanting much without doing. His long face and sad, soulful eyes lend to Lowery’s drab atmosphere of contrasting prosperity and fame, poverty and despair. The other stars are the cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo, the Irish landscape that poses for his lens and Daniel Hart’s attention-holding score, which turn the film into an immersive experience. The ending adheres to the poem for the most but launches into new areas – creating tendrils, if you will. The whole dreamy rendering is rooted but simultaneously airy, a lofty lore, freakishly forged by visionary filmmaking.