The Gentlemen

26 Jan

‘The Gentlemen’: Guy Ritchie gangster crew hashes out their differences to deadly ends

 

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It feels somewhat weird that this boldly minted Miramax offering from Guy Ritchie hits theaters just as the Harvey Weinstein trial kicks off in New York. Miramax, for those with short-term memories, was the studio Harvey and his brother founded back in 1979. The name remains synonymous with the notorious abuser, which is why in Ritchie’s return to the British gangster romp it’s so strange to see the moniker not only up there in lights, but as part of the plot. Perhaps the studio thought of it as something of a whitewash, but the timing makes the connection just too hard to shake.

That bit of ignominious history aside, “The Gentlemen” is quite entertaining, sharper and more focused than Ritchie’s “RocknRolla” (2008) though not in the same class as “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) or “Snatch” (2000). (Also hard to believe Ritchie just helmed the recent “Aladdin” adaptation). The ensemble here is a stroke of genius, with Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Pearson, an American transplant who runs a half-billion-dollar cannabis operation, Hugh Grant owning the picture as a conniving P.I. and aspiring screenwriter named Fletcher and hunky hot ticket Henry Golding as Dry Eye, a foot soldier with big ambitions. Then there’s Colin Farrell as “Coach,” a saucy sort who runs an inner-city gym, and Charlie Hunnam as Ray, Mickey’s fixer. The uber-twisted plot essentially rides on the rails of Mickey in the process of selling his business (because of his criminal past, when weed goes legal he likely won’t get a seat at the table) to a fellow American (Jeremy Strong). From there, the chess match of double dealings and plots within plots spews forth, the whole endeavor framed brilliantly by some deliciously dicey dialogue between Fletcher and Ray over a few bottles of scotch and Wagyu steak – what’s that in your freezer, the son of a Russian oligarch? 

The wild weave has some excitable highs – the hip-hop viral video of some of Coach’s kids laying a beatdown on a few of Mickey’s crew and Ray’s visit to a junkie’s den – but some of the orchestration feel far too enamored with itself and goes on too long. Cards are dealt and flipped, yet Ritchie keeps dealing. The bulk of the film hangs on McConaughey’s kingpin and his brash wife (Michelle Dockery), who runs an all-woman, luxury auto shop. But the characters that give the film soul and pop are the ones operating in the background, namely Fletcher, Coach and Ray. Grant’s wormy portrayal is so spot on but off-key for the actor that it’s blinding at first. (Ritchie unfortunately overplays the gift hand toward the end.) Farrell’s clean-cut, resourceful boxing honcho, however, is meted in just the right amount, including the unsavory deployment of a swine to win a point. Ray, for the most, emerges slowly but is the chap we get to know most intimately. He’s the film’s real hero. Golding, so promising in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “A Simple Favor” (both 2018), tries a changeup here, but for the most comes off as a pat, sneering fly in the ointment. 

The big snag for me (besides the brazen flag-waving of the Miramax banner) comes in Ritchie’s flagrant lifting of an iconic scene from “The Long Good Friday” (1978) – if you’re not familiar with the film, go see it; it’s the greatest British gangster flick to date. The borrow, unquestionably intended as homage and a Tarantino-esque nod and wink to in-the-know cinephiles, is admirable in intent, but the execution is staid, too close to the bone and anemic by comparison. If “The Gentlemen” had been about 15 to 20 minutes shorter it might have been a real rock-n-roller; as is, it’s sharply slick and witty between bouts of overwrought machinations.

Color Out of Space

23 Jan

‘Color Out of Space’: It’s classic Lovecraft updated with classic Nicolas Cage freakout

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If you were tickled pink by Nicolas Cage doing his goofball gonzo best in the bloody revenge thriller “Mandy” in 2018, sharpen your knives for another foray into the freaky with some genuinely glorious hambone-gnawing moments. In this adaption of H.P. Lovecraft’s favorite story, “Colour Out of Space” – which has had several cinematic spins, including “Die, Monster, Die!” back in 1965 starring Boris Karloff – Cage plays Nathan Gardner, trying to live off the grid in the farmhouse he grew up in under the thumb of a controlling patriarch.

The pursuit of Eden (in the fictional town of Arkham, which Lovecraft situated in our fair state and used often in his tales, though the film’s not shot here) doesn’t last long. Nathan’s attempt at growing tomatoes isn’t going so well – he’s a Gardner who can’t garden – though his alpaca endeavor seems to be doing marginally better. Then there’s Nathan’s wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson) who’s wildly unhappy with the spotty Wi-Fi and can’t work, while their daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) practices Wiccan rituals in the woods.  Rounding out the nuclear-plus clan are big brother Benny (Brendan Meyer) who gets stoned while tending to the woolly creatures in the barn and the youngest, little Jack (Julian Hilliard), something of  mama’s boy who becomes drawn to the voices he hears in the old well out front.

Things get really weird after an electrical storm drops a meteor in the front yard. The anemic tomatoes suddenly grow plump and large – but taste like crap – while fuchsia mushrooms crop up and a large technicolor dragonfly bemuses Jack. It’s all a wonderment, until the dog goes missing and mom goes into a hypnotic trance while paring vegetables in the pantry – the scene is the edgiest moment in the film and one that’ll have you wincing before anything goes wrong. Turns out the meteor’s an alien invasion of sorts that’s transported a “color” here to contaminate the water supply, mutating/possessing those who quaff it. Watching Nathan pull a clingy jellyfish creature from the shower drain will give you as many second thoughts about entering the bathroom as “Psycho” (1960) did.

Things work their way into John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982) territory. Tommy Chong pops up as the tripped-out hippie down the lane and the small-town cops are late to the game as Cage’s Nathan starts to do his very best Jack Torrance. You want to say you’ve seen it all before, but you have to remember Lovecraft was a contemporary of H.G. Wells, penning tales of the outré long before Stephen King was in diapers or John W. Campbell cooked up “Who Goes There?” (the basis for “The Thing”). The film also marks something of a comeback for director Richard Stanley, who, after coming to notoriety for his 1990 “Terminator”-esque thriller “Hardware” had a nasty fall when given a chance to helm a passion project, “The Island of Doctor Moreau” in the mid-90s. Yes, the one based on Wells’ book and starring Brando and Val Kilmer – and from which he was fired and replaced a week or so into principal photography, after a litany of production problems forming a rich narrative in its own right). Since then Stanley made a series of documentaries, including “The White Darkness” (2002) about voodoo and, more recently, returned to genre with a segment of the horror anthology “The Theatre Bizarre” (2013). “Color Out of Space” sets Stanley comfortably back where he started. The film looks far more polished than its modest $6 million budget. it’s not fully consistent or narratively clear, but it is a ghoulish pleasure to see Cage ditch his ho-hum dad and dive into the lunatic fringe.

John Henry

23 Jan

‘John Henry’: Seminal American hero update pits Terry Crews’ sledgehammer against gangs

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A small-budget thriller with plenty of grit and swagger, “John Henry” tosses tropes and lore into the blender with mixed results. Think “Billy Jack” (1971) or “Walking Tall” (1973) and you’d be in the neighborhood. For those who don’t know the American legend of John Henry (steeped in fact), the “steel-driving man” was a freed slave who took up work on a railroad. Henry was so physically gifted and effusive in his work, the folktale has it, that he raced a steam-driven boring machine to see who could get through the mountain quicker. The man won, but died shortly after. Here that myth gets a modern-day spin of sorts with football player-turned-character actor Terry Crews (“Idiocracy,” “Deadpool 2”) in the title role. His John has escaped gang life and tries to live quietly in L.A. Not an easy task, and because of his violent past, he abhors guns and keeps by his side (guesses anyone?) a sledgehammer for good measure.

John’s old life rages outside his front door. First, a gold-toothed gang banger runs over John’s dog – then threatens to shoot him because the dog gets blood all over his Escalade. Next, a den of gangsters who all don white jumpsuits (they’re Devo ridiculous, and there’s no perceivable purpose other than to make them easier to pick off) gets wiped out. Those behind it are two illegal immigrants there to free their Latina kindred, enslaved ostensibly for sex trade. One of the girls (Jamila Velazquez) ends up hiding under John Henry’s house and is later granted sanctuary. John can’t speak a lick of Spanish, but his loquacious, wheelchair-bound father (scene stealer Ken Foree) can, providing the communication bridge and the film with a meted current of comedy (Grady from “Sanford and Son” would not be a stretch). “Berta” is later joined by her brother Emilio (Joseph Julian Soria), one of the two behind the trigger in that shoot-up. “How many did you kill?” John asks. The answer is seven, and that’s the number Hell (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) will require to even the score. You know where this is going, sledgehammer and all.

The film, written and directed by first-timer Will Forbes, is notable for its social scope and ambition, but ultimately sags as it tries to do too much with the simple setup. The heat of the moment gets put on pause for ad nauseam backstory, and scenes of violent confrontation are drawn out so clumsily, Sergio Leone style, that hack trumps homage. That said, the infusion of rap and R&B bolsters the atmosphere greatly, and it’s nice to see Crews spread his wings role-wise. From the film, however, it’s hard to gauge his leading man potential. He’s big and imposing with the massive mallet in his mitts, sure, but then there’s Ludacris’s Hell sporting a cyborg-esque gold plated grille on the side of his face. He looks like he dropped out of lo-fi 1990s sci-fi thriller, and the effect is overwhelming. Rumor has it Netflix is queuing up a project with Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as John Henry. More to come.

From the filmmakers of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

21 Jan

 

Let the Furballs Fly

21 Jan

Better than ‘Cats’: Seeing oddly terrible film when ‘audience participation’ is encouraged

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I’ve yet to see the cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” Based on reactions from that first trailer and onward, I’ve been avoiding it. But now I might go check out the feline fetish flick that made Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr write, “I’d pay to unsee it.” 

The reason? The critical and box office bomb has become something of an immersive joke, akin to Paul Verhoeven’s pole-dance disaster, “Showgirls” from back in 1995, which audiences came to adore as a garish train wreck.

Riding that wave, the Somerville Theatre has begun audience participation screenings (officially, the late-night Friday and Saturday shows, according to Facebook) with hooting and jeering not only okay, but encouraged.

“It started from the first few screenings,” theater manager Ian Judge said. “Once the word got out that something was horrendously wrong with the movie in terms of it just being so bad, so odd, so unsettling in its half-assed effects, so jumbled in plot and such a bizarre mix of stars and talents, people came in large numbers out of a curiosity.”

Raucous audience reactions didn’t sit well with everyone. “We had to issue free passes to a couple of patrons,” Judge said – leading to the more formal embrace of its lameness.

To get an idea of how bad “Cats” is, it’s a $95 million film that made only $6.6 million in its opening weekend, something a limited, arthouse release would be excited about but a death knell for a big-budget production. By comparison, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” made $177 million in its first days of wide release. On IMDB, “Cats” has a filmgoer rating of 2.8, which is lower than most films made by Steve Bannon (which I had the pleasure to research for the recent run of “American Dharma”). “Showgirls” has an IMDB rating of 4.8.

The film is directed by Tom Hooper, who has such Academy-recognized films in his pocket as “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “The Danish Girl” (2015), and it stars Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson and Rebel Wilson. But it came under scrutiny as soon as its trailer release, with the poor quality and weirdness of its special effects going tsunami viral. An animated or live-action capture film from Pixar or James Cameron takes about four-plus years of visual rendering; the makers of “Cats” did theirs in seven months. The result was so shoddy and uneven that people began hunting immediately for weird and inconsistent fur patterns, bizarre genitalia and butt sculpting, not to mention creepy, monkey-like prehensile tails and scenes in which dame Dench’s human hand, replete with wedding band, showed up. (The studio has reedited and rereleased the film.)

As with classic midnight film “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” people come to “Cats” dressed up – in cat ears and more. Judge suspects the legalization of recreational marijuana may be aiding in audience appreciation. And did I mention that the Somerville Theatre sells beer and wine? Belly up to the bar and get your best caterwaul on.

The “Cats” screenings with audience participation take place at 9:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square. General admission is $11.

Agassiz, what’s in a Name

21 Jan

Support builds for a ‘Baldwin neighborhood,’ removing racist association of Agassiz name

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior Maya Counter, right, leads a discussion Tuesday about changing the name of the Agassiz neighborhood. With her is Ann Charlotte Hogstadius, her mother. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A name change for the Agassiz neighborhood won unanimous approval this week at a community meeting, with the caveat by several voters that more conversation is needed.

The proposal to change the name to the “Baldwin neighborhood” comes from Maya Counter, a resident of the neighborhood and co-president of the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. But it’s not new – Counter, a senior, came upon the idea her sophomore year while researching a history class project and learning of the “flawed science and racist beliefs” of namesake Louis Agassiz.

It’s also not an idea new to the neighborhood. In 2002, a School Committee vote renamed the Agassiz School on Oxford Street to address the same discomfort; addressing the neighborhood name might have followed, according to people active in neighborhood politics at the time, had not many of the students and parents who pushed for the change felt burned out by the effort.

The neighborhood’s Maria L. Baldwin School was known as the Agassiz School until 2002. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There was little disagreement Tuesday about Agassiz and the context of his legacy. The Swiss-born scientist who lived from 1807 to 1873 was famous for founding Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, but controversial for pushing racially divisive theories as science. He believed in polygenism, the idea that human races are of different origins, and that whites were intellectually superior to other races. He has been discredited for his racism, and his belief in creationism lost out to the evolutionary theories of contemporary Charles Darwin.

His name was taken off the local elementary school in honor of Maria Baldwin, who in 1899 became the first black female school principal in the Northeast – “the most distinguished position achieved by a person of negro descent in the teaching world of America,” W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1917.

It was at the school that the Agassiz Neighborhood Council met Tuesday to give Counter the “constructive conversation” she requested, and a positive reaction by the approximately 30 neighborhood residents and staff in attendance.

Maria Baldwin, circa 1885. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Wider involvement sought

But there were concerns about process after Counter announced she had reached out to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and planned to present to the City Council at month’s end.

Many at the ANC meeting expressed a strong desire to be involved in the process and felt that one meeting in a neighborhood of approximately 6,000 residents – with only two dozen in attendance – was not enough. (To prepare for the meeting, Counter posted about the idea on the neighborhood social media site Nextdoor. As at the meeting, there was strong support for a name change, though also some challenges that “you can’t erase the past.”) Some people at the meeting were concerned that Counter was rushing to get the change done before graduation.

Some also floated the notion that perhaps the neighborhood was named after Agassiz’s wife, Elizabeth Cabot, a naturalist and the founder of Radcliffe College, and therefore the name might still be applicable. But correspondence from Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, stated, “The Agassiz neighborhood was named after the Agassiz School, which is now the Baldwin School.”

No clear-cut process

Renaming a neighborhood lacks a clear-cut process, despite the recent change of Area IV to “The Port.” There too, race played a role, as residents believed the term “Area IV” was a police designation (it was created by the city facilitate analysis of the then upcoming 1940 U.S. Census). The change was made official by a City Council vote in 2015 after several rounds of community solicitation. In that situation too, not everyone felt the process had been inclusive enough, said Lee Farris, a resident of The Port who is active in civic affairs.

The Agassiz change may be simpler. A policy order by city councillor E. Denise Simmons approved unanimously in April asks the city to review the names of streets, schools and public buildings “that may be named in honor of those who have ties to the American slave trade” and work on renaming them “as soon as possible.” Agassiz, while not a slave owner and on record as an abolitionist, could be linked to slavery for espousing the beliefs that enabled it.

“Why keep it?”

There is already some eagerness for a name change among the hosts of the Tuesday meeting.

In 2007 the nonprofit that provides after-school services, runs the Maud Morgan Arts Center, hosts the Agassiz Neighborhood Council meetings and provides other community services, was rebranded the Agassiz Baldwin Community – a half-measure that doesn’t sit well with Counter. “Why keep it?” she said in an interview before the meeting, referring to the “Agassiz” part of the name. “He thought she was biologically inferior. It’s disrespectful to her.”

At the meeting, the nonprofit’s executive director, Maria La Page, agreed that having the name “Agassiz” upfront was a burden for an organization that holds inclusion at its core.

The Agassiz neighborhood is between Harvard and Porter squares and touches on Somerville, defined by Massachusetts Avenue to the west and Kirkland Street to the south.

Underwater

11 Jan

 

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It turns out “1917” isn’t the only beat-the-clock film this weekend. “Underwater,” a 95-minute race against time, gets its start early and rarely lets down. No, it’s not as harrowing, sharp or intelligent as “1917,” and that’s not because it’s a sci-fi thriller that asks a lot of its viewers – it’s because it’s an ersatz hodgepodge of genre cornerstones that have come before, namely “The Abyss” (1989), the “Alien” films and so on. To say more might spoil some not-so-surprising twists.

We begin with ominous news clippings about mysterious tremors off the Pacific coast and plunge quickly down to a drilling platform 7 miles beneath the ocean surface. There Kristen Stewart’s Norah, a mechanical engineer and one of 300 workers on the rig, brushes her teeth casually as the ring-shaped structure shifts and groans worryingly. More groans, a droplet of water and then all hell breaks loose. By the time we come up for air – and it’s a jittery, frenetic sequence, maybe the film’s best – most of the structure’s gone, as are most of those 300 employees. In a sealed-off section, Norah and five other survivors come to the unhappy realization that they’re trapped, with no serviceable means of returning to the surface, and the rest of the gigantic structure is collapsing slowly down on them.

The answer, as the rig’s captain (Vincent Cassel) has it, is clunky robotic diving suits designed to withstand all that pressure and an iffy, near blind amble across the ocean floor to an older facility that may have resources to get home. Up to that point, and at the onset of that sojourn, the film’s pretty gripping (think “Deepwater Horizon” inverted) but then something weird and ghostly swims by and our budding character study becomes a creature-feature fear fest – and not a very compelling one.

Directed by William Eubank, who showed poise and promise with the mind-bending thriller “The Signal” (2014), the film’s composed competently enough, and production values are high. It’s just all weighed down by an inert storyline that doesn’t even feign putting a new spin on old tropes: As they prepare to make the trip, Norah tells the other surviving woman, Emily (Jessica Henwick), to take off her pants, as they won’t fit in the deepwater diving suit, though the goofball big boy of the group (T.J. Miller) fits into the unisex exoskeleton just fine. Later on, like in Ridley Scott’s 1979 deep space thriller, there’s a panty-line payoff; it’s not egregious, but most definitely worthy of an eye roll. Through it all, the bespectacled Stewart (in an Annie Lennox bob) maintains a commanding hold of the screen, casting palatable emotions as needed. Without her, “Underwater” might have been a full-on collapse; even with, when the camera starts to settle on Norah and her mates and something crashes down or swims in from the dark, it reminds us that these humans are just chum. Best not to get too attached.