Men

20 May

‘Men’: Escaping trauma and engendering horror

By Tom Meek Thursday, May 19, 2022

Alex Garland, the scribe behind “The Beach” (2000) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010) and director of “Ex Machina” (2014) and “Annihilation” (2018), continues to raise the bar on immersive psychological horror with this third helming – which, as the title might suggest, is about the male of the species behaving badly. It’s not so much a #MeToo rallying cry but a confessional of a long ingrained inequity, to put it mildly. The film begins with a poignant crack to the jaw as a young Londoner (Jessie Buckley), whose name we learn is Harper, stares out a window. It’s a beautiful view of the Thames and all things London until a man on the other side of the pane drifts slowly into frame. Their eyes lock for a knowing moment, and then he’s gone. You sit there in a prolonged “Wait, what the …” and the camera flips to Harper. Before her face can register as aghast, we notice she has a bloodied nose and a puffy eye.

The man in the window is Harper’s troubled – troublesome might be the better word – husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). In the aftermath of his death, Harper decides to decamp and decompress by renting a 500-year-old countryside estate for a long weekend. The Airbnb tour is given by the owner, an affable chap named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) who looks like Hugh Grant gone to pot with bad hair and buck teeth (the prosthetics work in the film is a minor wonderment); anyone want to pack their bags for this remote, verdant tranquillity, though Geoffrey’s late comments to Harper about not putting hygiene products down the loo and some nonsense about “forbidden fruit” are cause for a brow raise. Things are a tick off, and start to go off the rails when Harper, walking old train tracks now grown over and lushly green, yodels playfully into a moss-lined tunnel. It’s a freeing, symphonic cavort until a menacing figure appears at the other end and begins growling and hooting. Later a naked man (also Kinnear) wanders into the garden as Harper is FaceTiming with a bestie. She calls the police, who arrest the intruder (the female officer is compassionate, her male counterpart not so much, and dismissively tags the perp as harmless and wayward). Men, it seems, are initially welcoming and open to Harper, including a priest and a peevish little puck both also played by Kinnear, but ultimately rebuke her with condescending impunity for, essentially, being a woman. The film begins with a series of such macho microaggressions, but gets physical and wildly surreal down the line. To say more would be to dispel the perfectly orchestrated atmospheric dread and well-laid psychological horror that Garland and crew conjure up.

Thematically, there’s a lot to “Men”: the intersection of paganism and Christianity, religious sexual repression and, of course, the headlining gender oppression. But for all its grand motifs and moodiness, the characters and the film itself are fundamentally thin. Don’t get me wrong, “Men” is an all-consuming cinematic experience, and Buckley, so good in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (2020) and “The Lost Daughter” (2021), and Kinnear of TV’s “Penny Dreadful,” put on a thespian clinic. But Harper, when boiled down, is little more than a grieving woman who likely escaped an emotionally abusive relationship. One might even argue she’s in a better place. Part of our understanding of that gets filled in by meted flashbacks, where James is less and less the kind, compassionate gent you first got to know, and you wonder too much about how the two ever came together; the trauma manifests in the present with the cast of quirky lads lurking around the bucolic countryside. If you were a fan of Garland pushing the boundaries of reality in “Annihilation” (I was), he goes even further here while dipping his toe into folk horror and adding a few Cronenberg-worthy touches, such as a severed limb and male birthing. More direct and emotionally genuine jabs at institutionalized sexism would be Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” (1997) and Kitty Green’s fictional take on all things Harvey Weinstein, “The Assistant” (2020). “Men” adds to that conversation, but not much that’s new. It’s how it adds that makes it a must-see curio.

Mumblecore ‘godfather’ Andrew Bujalski is back, and still finding his cinematic role ‘Funny Ha Ha’

28 Apr

By Tom Meek

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Director Andrew Bujalski, right, with actor Kevin Corrigan on the set of his 2015 film “Results.” (Photo: Ryan Green/ Magnolia Pictures)

Funny, it feels like “mumblecore” is a genre from the distant 1980s or ’90s, but it’s much more recent: The term was coined in 2005 by sound editor Eric Masunaga at the South by Southwest Film Festival, when he used it to encompass the lo-fi independent films “The Puffy Chair” by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass, “Kissing on the Mouth” by Joe Swanberg and “Mutual Appreciation” by Andrew Bujalski. Bujalski – for whom Masunaga has been a longtime collaborator – is often referred to as “the godfather of mumblecore,” and his first film, “Funny Ha Ha” (2002), about a wayward young woman (Kate Dollenmayer), is widely considered a cornerstone of the canon.

Bujalski, who grew up in Boston, studied filmmaking at Harvard and shot that debut feature in and around the area, is back in town for a 20th anniversary screening of the film Thursday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre with a Q&A moderated by Cantabrigian filmmaker and critic Gerald Peary. (Look for some insider play with Peary, who had a small role in Bujalski’s fourth feature, “Computer Chess.”) I spoke with Bujalski about labels and the challenges of making low-budget films and supporting a family.

“I think the only thing that was different, quote unquote, or new or seemed to capture a moment was a generational divide. We just happened to be the young people at that moment,” Bujalski said of the “mumblecore” term. “Lord knows I was not setting out to define any kind of aesthetic or anything.” Mumblecore films by definition are low-budget, dialogue-driven and feature young stars, with a generational vernacular often punctuated with “uhms” “likes” and “you knows.” “Chatty movies about young, middle-class white people,” is how Bujalski sums it up. 

The making of “Funny Ha Ha” had a lot of happenstance to it. Bujalski had Dollenmayer in mind when he wrote the lead role of Marnie, a recent college grad who tempers her malaise with alcohol and sets her sights on a college friend already in a relationship. The two were roommates in Boston, but after college Bujalski was living in Austin, Texas, and Dollenmayer was looking to go to grad school in L.A. Fate, family and friendly resources landed them back in Boston to do the shoot – they had thought about L.A., but Bujalski said that would have been a “disaster.” The film wrapped in late August 2001, just two weeks before 9/11.

Bujalski’s presence in Austin isn’t an accident. One of the key cited influences for mumblecore (which has a horror subgenre called “mumblegore”) is Richard Linklater’s 1990 debut “Slacker,” which kicked off a new ripple of independent filmmaking. “Talk about godfather,” Bujalski says of Linklater (“Boyhood” and “Waking Life” – the latter being one of the few other films Dollenmayer worked on), a fellow Texan who runs the Austin Film Society and has made the city something of an indie filmmakers’ haven. 

Of his own, mumblecore “godfather” tag, Bujalski laughs, both embracing it and shrugging it off. “At the time it kind of irked me, because it felt like a slight,” he said.

Now no longer the 20-something he makes films about, Bujalski is married with 7- and 11-year-old children. With his 2015 get in shape flick “Results,” his work went upscale with some A-minus-list actors (Guy Pearce, Coby Smulders, Kevin Corrigan and Giovanni Ribisi) and a bigger budget – but he remains coy about that, saying only that all of his seven films could be made for what a first-time Sundance smash might cost. (The Internet says $30,000 for “Funny Ha Ha”). His films generally gross north of $100,000 and garner critical raves.

Of money, Bujalski says, “I have two modes: not care, and panic. I’m getting close to panic now.” For “side hustles” Bujalski says he does whatever comes his way in the industry, including working on the dubbed version of the critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated French film “I Lost My Body” (2019), a Best Animated Film pick by the Boston Society of Film Critics. 

Bujalski is working on his seventh film, “There There,” which includes Lili Taylor, Jason Schwartzman and Lennie James of “The Walking Dead” among its cast. The director was reticent to describe it beyond not being the film Bujalski set out to make; Covid thwarted those plans, and he pivoted to “There There.” (Bujalski also did not say what that eighth feature might be about.)

“We’re not sure how to describe it,” Bujalski said of “There There.” “We’re just gonna put it on the screen and let everybody else tell us what we did.”

The Northman

24 Apr

‘The Northman’: Viking precursor to Hamlet barely hesitates to hack away at his problems

By Tom Meek Friday, April 22, 2022

It’s hard to believe Robert Eggers’ $90 million Viking saga is just two films out from his rousing debut “The Witch,” which he made for a humble $4 million back in 2015. That moody, Colonial-era chiller went on to amass more than $25 million worldwide, reinvigorating the folk horror genre and pronouncing Eggers as the talent of tomorrow. Tomorrow is today as “The Northman” thunders into theaters, an ambitious, big-scale take on the A.D. 895 tale of Amleth, a classic (or the classic?) revenge drama that would later become the roots for the Shakespearean tragedy “Hamlet.”

From the opening shots of an Icelandic volcano belching rivulets of lava and the churning north sea (the North Atlantic, as we now call it), Eggers casts a foreboding scape that brims with brutal beauty and primal allure. We often get Viking warriors crouched on all fours, grunting and howling as they channel their inner wolf during pre-battle rites conducted within the ring of a bonfire; no words, English or language of yore, fall from their lips.

In chaptered segments, we begin with King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returning from a conquest to his people, his wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and his young son, Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak). Hawke slips surprisingly well into the gruff, growly role, but Aurvandil’s not with us long; his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang, “The Square”) ambushes him and looks to kill the prince as well, but as lore and legend have it, Amleth is something of an Aquaman and can swim far and wide. In the next chapter we catch up with Amleth, now mature and ripped and played by Alexander Skarsgård (who played opposite Kidman as her husband in the series “Big Little Lies”) embarking upon a war party raid that is one long, gorgeously shot carnival of carnage. It’s not until the last drop of blood soaks into the mud (the film has that “Gladiator” sword-and-sandal texture to it, but mud-and-blood is a more apt tag) that you fully realize that Amleth is out for one thing: to even the score with Fjölnir. To do so, he poses as a slave working Fjölnir’s fields. You’d imagine with such strong genetic ties, his uncle might recognize his now burly and physically capable nephew, but he does not, and neither does his mother, who has taken up with Fjölnir and borne him a son.

Much of the copious and well-staged violence unleashed onscreen is the manifestation of the molten rage that roils inside Amleth, who proves an efficient and unrestrained killing machine. Skarsgård carries the part strikingly, but it’s Kidman who shines in a multifaceted role in which everything is not as it appears. Eggers regular Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”) throws in as Olga, a slave alongside Amleth who becomes his lover and co-conspirator, as does fellow Eggers ally Willem Dafoe (who co-starred with Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse”) as Aurvandil’s fool. Icelander Björk, in her first feature performance since “Dancer in the Dark” in 2000, takes up the part of the oracle who torments Amleth.

Those who might be concerned that such a budget and scope might change or addle the filmmaker’s work can relax. “The Northman” feels strangely akin to Eggers’ earlier efforts; at the core, they’re all period pieces set in harsh, unforgiving surroundings haunted by the spirits of past inhabitants. Where those big dollars go are the sets, the stockaded villages, Viking ships and earth-roofed fiefdoms nestled into the rolling hills of Iceland. Eggers carries forward his animal obsession too. It was a menacing goat in “The Witch” and a baneful seagull in “The Lighthouse”; here we get a murder of crows that have Amleth’s back, not to mention his ability to commune with a friendly fox on his covert night stalks or Fjölnir’s pet bull mastiff. Not all of “The Northman” works – some of it’s muddled visually and linguistically, and at turns it gets a bit too feral for its own good – but the immersion and mood makes for a mesmerizing and haunting odyssey, much in the same way Terrence Malick’s dreamy “The New World” (2005) took us to back to our early colonial origins.

Mark Wahlberg is reaching out

14 Apr

The actor-producer is mourning his mom, modeling faith instead of underwear and repudiating his breakthrough in ‘Boogie Nights’

By Tom Meek Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Mark Wahlberg, in town to promote the opening of his “Father Stu.” (Photo: Tom Meek)

The evolution of local guy Mark Wahlberg has been an intriguing, ongoing process, starting as a troubled Dorchester gangbanger with brief turns as an underwear model and hip-hop incarnation Marky Mark (“Good Vibrations”). As a movie star he’s worked with some of the industry’s best (Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tim Burton and David O’Russell), done a myriad of cheeky comedies (“2 Guns,” Daddy’s Home”), rocked it in actioners (“Lone Survivor,” “Transformers”), made a few duds (“Infinite,” “Mile 22”) and shot local (“Patriots Day,” “The Fighter,” “Spenser Confidential,” “Ted” and “The Departed,” for which Wahlberg was Oscar-nominated). He’s starred in nearly 70 films and has produced many of those projects, including “The Fighter” (2010), which earned Wahlberg a Best Picture nomination, and his latest, “Father Stu,” a passion project about the titular real-life boxer Stuart Long, who bottoms out but goes on to become an inspirational priest while facing severe personal challenges.

Wahlberg was in town to promote the film for its Wednesday opening. The actor, who has a past of assault and drug use as a teen, was warm and open in conversation and called the film “a reflection of my faith and where I’m at today as a person.” (In 2017, after connecting with his Catholic faith, Wahlberg said that he regretted making 1997’s “Boogie Nights” because of the views the Catholic Church has on pornography, and that he wanted to serve as a role model for youth finding faith.) Wahlberg’s trip back to his hometown was notably bittersweet, as he lost his mother to dementia during the making of the film. “It’s tough, because it’s the first time I’ve been back in Boston,” Wahlberg said, “because the first thing I do is go see my mom. I don’t get to make the phone calls anymore, and every time I came, she was always just right there. So it’s a bit strange being here right now.”

About the film and its religious overtones, which are fairly balanced in the final product, Wahlberg is pragmatic: “It’s a redemption story. It’s many things, but, you know, hopefully, it’s going to encourage people to start looking at the good again.” Wahlberg put up much of the money to get the project made and in the future hopes to “utilize whatever influence I may wield in the industry to make the kind of things that I want to put out there” – ostensibly, more faith-based films. One of his main allies in making the film was Mel Gibson, a fellow Christian who directed the deeply faith-based film “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) and costars as Wahlberg’s father. The two connected on the set of “Daddy’s Home 2” (2017). “I was always inspired by his making of ‘The Passion of the Christ,’” Wahlberg said, “and I wanted pick his brain about it, and to see where he had difficulties and why he just chose to do it on his own.” Gibson’s partner, Rosalind Ross, wrote the script and makes her directorial debut with “Father Stu.” 

For all of Wahlberg’s professed desire to make more faith-based work, his upcoming projects include the comedy “Me Time,” about a dad needing some personal space, and “The Six Billion Dollar Man,” a 2022 fiscal and technological update of the ’70s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man.” 

He also said he wanted to revisit the role of boxer Micky Ward, which he played in “The Fighter,” and explore Ward’s relationship with Arturo Gatti, whom he faced in three grueling title fights. (Gatti died in 2009 of mysterious causes, which many believe was a homicide set up to look like suicide.)

Father Stu

14 Apr

‘Father Stu’: The Passion of the Wahlberg

By Tom Meek Tuesday, April 12, 2022

If you’re going to go into “Father Stu” believing it a didactic, preachy film from a movie star who’s embraced his faith – or not go into it, for the same reason – take a deep breath. It’s a portrait of a man, his struggles and evolution toward faith and a deeply personal film, but it does not outwardly preach the virtues of Christianity nor does it seek to convert. In context it’s akin to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), clearly a faith-based passion project that’s compelling and visceral for those who believe and a fine film for others who believe otherwise. Mark Wahlberg, the movie star we’re talking about here, plays the titular Stu and gives one of the best performances of his career. Gibson is in tow as his wayward father; his Gibson’s significant other, Rosalind Ross, was recruited by Wahlberg to write and direct.

The true-life, Job-like journey of Stu begins with a brief preamble of growing up in a dysfunctional household in small-town Montana. We catch up with Stu as a young man in the midst of a semi-successful boxing career, with a montage of a ripped Wahlberg squaring off against various opponents. After one hotly contested bout, he gets news from a physician that he’s one or two headshots away from the grave. Reluctantly, Stu hangs up the gloves and, for his next act and without much of a second thought, scoots off to Hollywood to become an actor. You have to admire Stu’s blind optimism (or is it naiveté?) as he works a meat counter in a supermarket (à la Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”) trolling the clientele to ask if they’re in the biz. One day he waits on a young woman named Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) and boom, as fast as that move west it’s love at first sight. But Carmen’s Catholic, and there’s no nookie until the knot is tied. Still smitten, Stu converts but experiences a horrendous (wince-worthy) motorcycle accident that leaves him near dead and seeing visions in his semiconscious state. It’s not fully on screen, but during his recovery Stu sees the light and decides to join the priesthood (so much for Carmen), where he’s reluctantly received as a coarse, undeserving outsider. Adding to the uphill battle is the matter of reconnecting with his alcoholic father (Gibson), who’s working a construction gig in L.A. Then comes the onset of a rare, debilitating disease (think ALS).

The film as directed by Ross (it’s her debut) has a gritty internal warmth, though not all the plot points seem to flow together organically – namely any logically felt reasons for Stu’s impulsive transitions other than tragic hardship. Wahlberg, who’s made many a slack film (“Infinite” and “Mile 22,” to name two recent duds) also has turned in some strong work when working with quality filmmakers (“I Heart Huckabees,” “The Departed” and “Boogie Nights”). Here he’s all in, pulling a De Niro by going from ripped pugilist to adding 30 pounds to transform himself for that latter-day ailing Stu. He brings his cocky street persona to the part in meted doses that add value when Stu, from the pulpit, channels that feral something else from his previous life; while different, it resonates with parishioners and grabs the attentions of his theological higher-ups. There are also some emotional, challenging scenes of personal defeat, tragedy and trials of faith that Wahlberg pulls off with aplomb. It helps that the cast around him is strong, which goes not only for Gibson but for the indelible Jacki Weaver (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “Animal Kingdom”) as his caring mother and Malcolm McDowell as Stu’s compassionate, overseeing monseigneur. “Father Stu” may be about faith, but you don’t need to be of faith to appreciate the trials and tragedies endured by a man who has persevered against all odds. Bradley Jackson

“Everything Everywhere” interview

2 Apr

With ‘Everything Everywhere,’ Daniels escape genre trap to make the multiverse meaningful

By Tom Meek Thursday, March 31, 2022

Daniels – Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, directors of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” – at The Liberty hotel in Boston. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Around the same time as Sunday night’s slap felt round the world – that of Will Smith hitting Chris Rock at the Oscars – something equally thought-provoking but far less violent was taking place at MIT: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the filmmaking team known as Daniels, were showing their latest, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” to a lecture series audience. If their gonzo, Gondry-esque flatulence flick “Swiss Army Man” (2016) was rooted in scatological surreality, “Everything Everywhere” is an absurdist multiverse overload propelled by family values, film references within film references and butt plugs. The plot has something to do with an immigrant laundry operator (Michelle Yeoh, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Crazy Rich Asians”) battling a jacked-up IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a devilishly funny turn) in a wildly generic office suite (think the office wars in “Time Bandits”) with segues into other planes of reality. In one, Yeoh’s imperiled heroine is a famous martial-arts action star (art imitating life); in another, she’s in a relationship with Curtis’ auditor in a universe where everyone’s fingers are floppy hot dogs. If you thought “Swiss Army Man” really went to some far-out places, be ready to go to infinity and beyond, literally. There’s a lot that comes at you, and a bit of cranium calisthenics required of the view, but a multitasking Yeoh holds the universe, her family and the film together.

The multiverse concept became a mainstream staple last year with “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” when Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) tore the fabric of the universe and Spider-Men (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, alongside Tom Holland as the current Spidey) and their affiliated villains (Goblin, Sandman, Doctor Octopus and more) all pour into the present. Kwan said in our interview that they had started writing “Everything Everywhere” in 2016, “before any of that other stuff came out,” but laments that because of Spider-Ham in the 2018 animated change-up, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “we had to cut the talking pig.”

The Daniels looked at scientific theories around the principles driving a multiverse, Kwan said – namely the cosmological, “which is more about inflation and infinite space, versus quantum physics, which is more about superposition.” Scheinert clarified: “We’re not smart enough to read science papers, but we do pop science.”

It’s easy to tell by their seamless interaction that the filmmakers have a rare dynamic, like with the Safdie and Coen brothers, in which egos and personas aren’t a barrier, but a point of collaborative confluence. The pair met at Emerson, graduating in ’09, and kicked around Cambridge and Somerville too – Kwan in Central Square and Scheinert in Davis – before moving to Los Angeles, where they did varying TV and music video work before “Swiss Army Man.”

“Everything Everywhere” has been universally tagged as a sci-fi action comedy, but that’s reductive compared with what it really digs into. “I’m bummed when science fiction doesn’t explore how these big ideas make me feel but just use it as a plot point,” Scheinert said. “Swiss Army Man” explored loneliness and personal delusion as a means of coping, and “Everything Everywhere,” while on the surface being about saving the universe, is about making a connection in the chaos of the world. “How do you find each other in the noise of modern life?” Kwan says. “How do you find each other and truly see each other, when there’s so many things trying to pull us away from each other?”

At the core of that is Yeoh’s matron trying to rebuild strained relations with her husband (Ke Huy Quan, “Indiana Jones,” “The Goonies”), daughter (Stephanie Hsu, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) and father (James Hong, most famous as the baddie in “Big Trouble in Little China,” but whose credits go back to the 1960s TV show “Dragnet” and as a voice in the 1956 “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”) that manifest themselves in various ways in the varying multiverses. Scheinert calls it a “maximalist family drama.”

What’s next for The Daniels is up in the air; Kwan, who has a young child, has some illustrated children’s books coming out through the publishing arm of A24 Films, which distributed “Swiss Army Man” and “Everything Everywhere.”

When asked about that slap and the Oscars in general, Scheinert and Kwan suggested it was a phenomenon weirder than what a Daniels films deal with: “I watched a little bit of it in the hotel bar. The couple next to me had seen none of the movies and they kept asking me questions that I knew the answers to, but I got tired and went to bed.” Scheinert said it was great to see Curtis there and enjoys the pageantry, but added, “I don’t think art needs prizes.” Perhaps if Daniels had directed the Oscars ceremony, they could have ripped open the multiverse and scripted a different course. For now Hollywood is stained with the ignominy of that moment, while their film opens Friday at the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema.

The Lost City

28 Mar

Romancing the same

By Tom Meek

Swashbuckling rom-coms tend to work (“Romancing the Stone”) or not so much (“Jungle Cruise”) based on the chemistry between the leads, the cheekiness of the supporting cast and some deft plot twists. “The Lost City” has plenty of the above, even if it runs out before the end. The set-up has reclusive romance novelist Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock) – don’t call her Danielle Steel – tired of churning out product and even more so of doing publicity tours with hunky cover model Dash (Channing Tatum, whom you can call Fabio; he’s riffed as such, replete with flowing blonde locks). The rub with the latest book comes when Loretta, bored with the process and grieving the death of her husband, gets kidnapped by an eccentric billionaire with the benevolent-sounding name Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe, excellent in the mercurial fop role) to decode ancient hieroglyphics so he can obtain the unobtainable: an ancient crown of jewels in the buried enclave of the film’s title.

The whole shebang’s pretty much a McGuffin so Tatum and Bullock can engage in a rom-com romp on a tropical island. There’s leech removal from personal parts and a sequined unitard that just won’t die. What’s a real blast is Brad Pitt in a cameo as a zen extraction expert (allegedly the idea came on the set of Pitt’s “Bullet Train” – coming this year – in which Bullock had a cameo, and this was the payback) and Patty Harrison as Loretta’s boozy social media publicist, not to mention Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the stressed-out, brash-talking tour manager and Oscar Nuñez as the the quirky cargo plane pilot who often interprets words a bit too literally.

Tatum and Bullock have solid chemistry, but the film runs out of pomp and verve as plot ends need to be tied up and things become a bit too predictable. Don’t get me wrong, the film has plenty of “didn’t see that coming” moments – it’s just they’re front loaded. No matter. “The Lost City” will serve as a nice studio-produced calling card for the brotherly directing team of Adam and Aaron Nee, who until now have mostly toiled together acting, writing and directing indie fare such as “Band of Robbers” (2015) and “The Last Romantic” (2006). Next up for the Nees is more action and adventure with the big-screen take on He-Man, “Masters of the Universe.” Pro tip for “Lost City”: Be sure to sit through the credits.

X

18 Mar

The golden age of porn meets up, violently, with the original era of the slasher flick

By Tom Meek Thursday, March 17, 2022

Filmmaker Ti West (“The Innkeepers”), part of a mumblecore/mumblegore pack with Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”) and Adam Wingard (“You’re Next”), goes solo with this homage to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” – the 1974 original, not the slack update available now on Netflix. The setup in “X,” which takes place in the 1970s and is shot in grainy era style by West and longtime cinematog collaborator Elliot Rockett, is simple: A bunch of young adult filmmakers see the lucrative advent of the home video market on the horizon and rent a ramshackle lodge on a farm to make their own porn opus, “The Farmer’s Daughters.” The cheeky film-within-a-film pays its own homage, this time to flicks featuring Marilyn Chambers and her golden-age-of-porn contemporaries. Of course the old couple they rent the space from aren’t in on the whats and whys, and like “Deep Water,” that Adrian Lyne project appearing on Hulu this week, sex without full consensual buy-in by all parties has deadly ramifications.

In sync with “Fresh,” another recent Hulu release, “X” is something of a cinematic double clutch, two movies fused into one. In “Fresh” we go from rom-com to horror flick halfway in, which is where the credits roll. Here we amble along with the raucous lo-fi porno filmmaking fun until Pearl (the name of the actress under the mound of latex shall remain unnamed), the elderly woman who owns the property, catches a glimmer of an athletic sex scene from outside a window. Despite the preacher perpetually barking about morality on her TV up in the main house, the peep does not educe anger but instead incites lust. It’s also here that Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), the girlfriend of the film’s camera operator (Owen Campbell) who fills in on sound boom duty,  decides she too wants to get in front of the camera for a rigorous romp with the film’s lead (Kid Cudi, “The Harder They Fall”), much to the chagrin of her beau. “It’s just business,” quips the film’s producer, Wayne (Martin Henderson, a dead ringer for Matthew McConaughey in form, inflection and demeanor), something he knows something about – his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth, “High Life” and “Suspiria”) is one of the two daughters (Brittany Snow, sassy and excellent, is the other) who hook up with a strapping passerby (Cudi). Before any division can work its way through the crew, one of them goes missing. There’s some devious, decaying funk down in the basement of the main house and the seniors, well into their age-spotted 80s (it’s 1979, and he served in World War I), aren’t quite as feeble as their creaky, hobbled lopes initially indicate; and you know that big gator down in the pond is going to have something to say at some point.

The concept of creepy elders orchestrating dirty deeds is nothing new – just see M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” (2015). It’s an effective genre changeup, but it’s still genre and the part of the film where the pitch and degree of awe start to ebb. After first blood is spilled you know it’s a domino chain to the bloody end, and there’s little Q as to who the sole survivor will be. West, clearly enraptured by his characters and the setting, filmed a prequel about Pearl simultaneously and seeds the workings for a sequel as well. The real wonderment of the film, beyond the stellar performances, lie in the framing and editing. Also, interestingly enough, the small town in Texas isn’t even in the Americas, it was shot in New Zealand.

Deep Water

18 Mar

‘Deep Water’: The erotic thriller is back, and the bodies are piling up

By Tom Meek Thursday, March 17, 2022

Hard to believe it’s been 20 years since director Adrian Lyne, the hand behind such provocative, erotic thrillers as “Fatal Attraction” (1987), “9½ Weeks” (1986) and “Indecent Proposal” (1993), has helmed a film. Since that last film, “Unfaithful,” much has happened, namely the #MeToo movement, that might make one wonder if an Adrian Lyne film could be made in this day and age. The answer with “Deep Water” is a clear “yes,” but just how big a “yes” will be measured by viewership and public reaction.

As with all of his projects (a slim eight, believe it or not) Lyne garners an A-list cast with Ben Affleck as Vic Van Allen, a well-to-do entrepreneur semi-retired in his gray-tinted 40s, and Ana de Armas as his vivacious younger wife, Melinda. They live in low-key manse in the bucolic South, where Vic passes much of his time cruising around town on his mountain bike while a well-paid sitter watches their precocious daughter (Grace Jenkins) and Melinda, ever on the go, collects young men. She’s unapologetic about it, with a free-spirited “do as I want” manifesto that we learn about early on when she invites a young Brad Pitt knockoff (Brendon Miller) to the boozy, invite-only birthday bash of a prominent local. From behind a window sash Vic catches a glimmer of Melinda necking with her invitee poolside. His reactions are passively indifferent; others too seem unperturbed – it’s just Melinda being Melinda, or so that’s the vibe. We get to witness her in full force during a wobbly piano-top toast and a rousing rendition of Paolo Conte’s “It’s Wonderful.”

Later at the bar, Vic winds up shoulder to shoulder with the hunk, who thanks him for “letting him spend time with his wife.” What’s going on, you might ask? Do Vic and Melanie have an open marriage? When Vic chases baby Brad, Melinda flies into a rage and demands that Vic invite her paramour in training over for dinner. Cruel games seem to be a thing; there is an apparent uneasy understanding between the two. Even so, there’s a rage in Vic’s eyes that seems to roil under his externally impassive complicity – or perhaps it’s some form of twisted turn-on? Hard to tell by Affleck’s prosaic performance. “If you weren’t married to me, you’d be bored,” Melanie tells Vic in one angry exchange, and you can’t fault her on her logic: Vic looks bored, in need of a kick in the pants, though his odd obsession with snails is almost more curious and profound than the couple’s toxic inner workings. Armas (“Blade Runner 2049,” “Knives Out”) owns the film; her spoiled brat is a hot mess you despise but, at a cocktail party leading a raucous singalong or offering you a glass of bubbly, could easily win you over. Other buff lads who come hither are played by “Euphoria” pretty boy Jacob Elordi and Finn Wittrock. Playwright Tracy Letts patrols the perimeter as a cynical writer new to town who casts a scrutinizing eye on Vic and Melanie. 

Given that the film’s based on a 1957 novel by Patricia Highsmith (also made into the 1981 film “Eaux Profondes” starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert), bodies pop up. The first is one of Melanie’s other “friends,” a guy named Malcolm McRae; his name is bantered about early and often, yet we never meet in the flesh – or in the dead, for that matter. To say more about how things go would be to ruin the mystery, but as adapted by Sam Levinson, whose career signature is the erotically raunchy high school drama “Euphoria,” and with Lyne at the helm, it’s really all about the eros. 

It’s steamy to be sure, and Armas carries it off with brazen bravado, but the film works only in wisps. I mean, Vic’s got enough green to buy a lux mountain biking chalet in the hills, and I’d imagine he’d likely do well on dating apps, so why deal with Melanie’s in-your-face sexual shenanigans? That question’s never answered, and because it isn’t the whole exercise feels like a slimy snail trail to nowhere. That “yes” is likely more likely a “yeah, right.”

Of Lanes and Games

7 Mar

City will miss cycling safety law’s May 1 deadline on changes to traffic through Porter Square area

By Tom Meek and Marc Levy Saturday, March 5, 2022

A bicyclist rides south through Porter Square on Jan. 25. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The city will miss its May 1 deadline to install quick-build separated bicycle lanes on Massachusetts Avenue through Porter Square, the city manager will tell the City Council on Monday.

Community engagement requirements, the need for more time to develop and install infrastructure to make up for the loss of current parking spaces and complications in scheduling contractors combine to make it impossible to meet the demands set by the city’s Cycling Safety Ordinance, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale said. The letter was included Thursday in the agenda packet for the next council meeting.

The bike lanes between Beech Street and Roseland Street are to be done in quick-build fashion using road paint and plastic flex-posts, with parking meters and loading zones moved to side streets to make up for some loss of spaces on Massachusetts Avenue. But a quick-build bus-and-bike project in November that cost parking spaces, angering businesses west of Porter Square, forced a reconsideration of how the Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department moved ahead with community engagement and mitigation efforts.

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