Archive | November, 2018

Prospect

30 Nov

 

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A deep space mission to harvest something called Aurelacs – a highly valued gem that grows in slimy organic sacs that would make David Cronenberg proud – goes horribly wrong in “Prospect,” stranding a father-daughter team in a future where space travel across galaxies is relatively common. Made arty and moody by rising filmmaking duo Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl, expanding on their 2014 short of the same name, the themes and atmosphere echo that of “The Martian” (2016), “Interstellar” (2014) and even “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) – if not for the retro space suits, then at least all the heavy breathing.

Pulling from familiar tropes, the landing party (descending in a neat little capsule that looks something like a lunar module or whatever it was Matt Damon cruised in on in “The Martian”) hope to make one big “prospecting” score and move on to a better, less perilous lifestyle. Dad (Jay Duplass, co-director of the 2006 indie surprise, “The Puffy Chair”) and his teenage daughter, Cee (Sophie Thatcher, the film’s revelation) descend on a bucolic planet that’s as verdant, dank and lush as the Pacific Northwest forests were in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” this year – still, as gorgeous and inviting as it is, you need to be suited and with a full tank of oxygen. 

Funny, as far out as they are and in the middle of nowhere, they barely get started on their quest when they bump into two malcontents who prove none too welcoming. Shortly enough, Cee and the one named Ezra (“Game of Thrones” actor Pedro Pascal) set out to find the the Aurelacs  mother lode (aka the “Queen’s Lair”), despite the nagging matter that Cee’s lander has malfunctioned and Ezra and his cohort have no means off the planet either. For all the riches to be had, folk seem too intently focused on it despite the looming dilemma that there’s no way to realize the spoils. 

You could think of “Prospect” as something akin to this year’s unheralded “The Sisters Brothers,” in which the gold at the center of the quest is little more than a MacGuffin and the characters sail through a lawless terrain with nothing but themselves to rely on for salvation or justice. There’s other beings, mostly human we assume, that Cee and Ezra encounter along the way, including a dominatrix who gets her charges on their knees by blasting distorted disco rhythms into their helmets. It’s a weird world to wind up not-so alone in, and given greater impact by tight, intimate camera work. 

Beyond Thatcher, who pulls the film along the way Anya Taylor-Joy did “The Witch” in 2015, the best part of Caldwell and Earl’s collaboration becomes the hellbent “Godot”-esque mission to nowhere. If you caught “Annihilation” earlier this year, you’d have a pretty good idea of the psychological fabric as the normal plunges headlong into chaos. “Prospect” also moves in bends and inflections that are largely – and pleasantly – unpredictable. Sure, it’s odd that folks amid an evergreen paradise can’t breath the air except in unseemly yurts, but “Prospect” rises on character, mood and a derivative tang that glances just off the penumbra of homage and avoids shameless lifting.

Haunts

30 Nov

Andy’s Diner, home of the Cambridge Classic, has become one itself after 60 years in Porter

Andy’s Diner has been serving food in Cambridge since 1958. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Hard to believe Andy’s Diner, the old-school breakfast and lunch spot just north of Porter Square at 2030 Massachusetts Ave., has been slinging eggs and serving coffee since 1958. Over those 60 years there’s barely been a change in process, service or menu. Sure, there was a switch in owners (current owner and chef Jimmy Dres bought it from Andy Sbordone in 1989) and the diner moved locations by a few doors about a decade in, but when you walk through the door, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time: There’s a soda fountain-style counter with fixed barstools that swivel, and the walls are decorated with Boston sports heroes from before the Sox reversed the curse or Tom Brady stepped into the GOAT conversation – you know, guys like Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson and Steve Grogan.

With exposed brick walls and ’70s-style booths, Andy’s, open 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., serves breakfast all day and boasts a basic but vast griddle and deli menu – including homemade soups. Dres describes most of his clientele as loyal, blue-collar workers and regular local families with a peppering of curious collegians seeking a hearty hangover cure or in need of a cozy study session spot-cum-comfort food. 

Andy’s owner and chef Jimmy Dres and server Kelly Butler Pinksen. (Photo: Tom Meek)

If there’s a specialty, it’s the omelettes. Dres has a process adopted carefully from Sbordine. “They’re never burned, and perfectly even, kind of like an egg burrito,” Dres says. Indeed: They are neatly folded, long golden crepes of egg with a perfect distribution of fillings.

Dres, who has an affable, low-key persona, reflects on the joy of serving families with parents who’d been the kids in that booth decades earlier. He’s also appreciative of the people he works with, including Tina Ravanis, one of Sbordine’s granddaughters. During a recent visit, hardworking server Kelly Butler Pinksen – with Dres for more than 15 years – greeted customers by first name and asked if they wanted “the usual.” You really don’t see that in Cambridge so much these days. 

The building Andy’s is in sold recently, and while the rent may have gone up, you can still get a dollar-stretching deal there. The menu, with its “Cambridge Classic” – French toast with two eggs, sausage, bacon and coffee – also has daily specials and rotational items, such as a fish dinner on Fridays. “Everything is fresh and made here,” Pinksen says.

An Andy’s omelette – ““They’re never burned, and perfectly even, kind of like an egg burrito.” (Photo: Tom Meek)

Outside there’s the continual reminders of transformation in the neighborhood, if not the new hotel and Target store in Porter Square then the gaping construction site across the street where the Lechmere Car Wash used to be. Dres shows no signs of slowing amid all the change. Asked if there’ll be a new generation to run the place, he smiles and says only, “It’s a lot of work.”

If a perfectly cooked omelette, low cost and friendly service isn’t enough to draw you in, know that Andy’s also has its own free parking lot – something else that’s not so common in Cambridge this days.

Much around Andy’s has changed, but it remains one of the few true Cambridge classics.

 

Cambridge Delves Inward on Racism

27 Nov

 

A rally at City Hall held Aug. 14, 2017, responded to a violent white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, but only hinted at some of the racial animosity to come in America and Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The city launches its Cambridge Digs Deep sessions Wednesday, a program initiated by Mayor Marc McGovern and city councillor Sumbul Siddiqui to spur a citywide conversation about race, diversity and equity. The program partners with the Disruptive Equity Education Project – a professional development organization that specializes in building community and breaking down barriers based on stereotypes and preconceptions. Deep will lend its services to help facilitate and shape the conversation.

Part of the impetus for the series were ongoing concerns raised by the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, which also get a hearing at Tuesday’s meeting of the School Committee, and recent viral flares of racism including a July confrontation between a Harvard employee and the mother of a biracial child who was playing “noisily” and a public schools employee who used the N-word with a student. Siddiqui also cited a divisive climate created by the administration of President Donald Trump and national events such as last year’s white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville,Virginia, and the migrant caravan seeking asylum at the southern border.

“Cambridge is not truly the progressive utopia that everyone sees it as,” which makes constant examination and reevaluation necessary, McGovern said.

One of the tools Deep and chief executive Darnisa Amante will bring to the table is the exploration of microaggressions versus macroaggressions, as well as the understanding of intent and impact. As illustration, McGovern cited a scenario in which a teacher on the first day of a high school honors English class asked the lone black student if he was “in the right class.”

“The teacher might not think they are racist,” McGovern said, “but there’s an impact.”

Siddiqui, a Pakistani-born, Muslim woman raised in Cambridge affordable housing, added, “It’s also simply how people mispronounce different names or dismiss them as ‘too difficult.’”

McGovern and Siddiqui believe their deep roots in Cambridge will help give the workshops a historical perspective, and said they hope for a dialogue that will “get people outside their comfort zones and begin to see the ways in which identities – such as race, class, gender, religion – impact our lives.” Expected outcomes are a “bit of a work in progress,” McGovern admitted. “We’re going to be learning as we go.”

“We don’t expect a prescribed list of policies,” Siddiqui echoed, “but we’ll be listening.”

Also on the agenda will be issues of class and inclusion made newly prominent by an affordable housing overlay zoning proposal raised by the Envision Cambridge master plan process. 

“Our goal is to ensure that people can talk about race and inequity – and know the differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion, race, racism and oppression – in a way that does not ostracize others and/or make anyone feel unwelcome,” Amante said. “We will, however, push with love.”

The initial Cambridge Digs Deep session takes place at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the gymnasium of the Fletcher Maynard Academy, 225 Windsor St. Four more are scheduled for the early part of 2019. The sessions are set up to build on each other, but there is no requirement to have attended previous sessions to be part of the conversation. McGovern and Siddiqui said they hope for a strong turnout and a constructive dialogue.

Green Book

22 Nov

‘Green Book’: Tour through segregated South drives a buddy movie that follows a true tale

 

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Peter Farrelly, best known as half of the brother tandem who made “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) and the chaotically uproarious “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), pulls something of an unexpected about face with “Green Book,” real-life saga about a white man chauffeuring a black man through the Deep South during the early 1960s.

The boss is Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, a deserving Oscar winner for his work in “Moonlight”), a renowned jazz pianist tired of playing the Upper East Side who decides to take his talents south – in part to see the world, and also to make the world see him. His driver, a Bronx-bred Italian-American name Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). Tony is something akin to Robert De Niro’s fat Jake LaMotta – boy can he eat, he’s not one to take too much shit and he’s got a mouth. It’s “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) in reverse in so many ways, with its racist backdrop still far too similar to what pervades our country now. Once difference is that the current “green book” is an app with historical insights; from 1936 to 1966, it was a vital guide to safe spots in the segregated South.

For the most part, the film’s a buddy bonding road movie, as the aloof intellectual and motor-mouthed lout with a heart of gold break down cultural and personal barriers. At its best, Tony doesn’t judge Don Shirley after bailing him out of several compromising and potentially explosive situations where the jazz pianist dips into the bottle too much and wanders outside the lines. At its worst, Tony lectures Shirley about “his people,” Motown stars the classical musician hasn’t heard (Little Richard and Aretha) and the virtues of fried chicken – a cringeworthy scene, if just for the risky proximity of grease to a neatly pressed white shirt. 

Farrelly lays it on a bit at times where films such as “Hidden Figures” (2016) “Miss Daisy” and “The Butler” (2013) respectfully observe and allow character and history to make points on their own terms. His actors, though, do a great job selling it, and forge a genuine chemistry, despite such overwrought handling – Ali welling with dignified resolve and Mortensen adding a ton of weight and tackling new emotional territory with a screwball sense of humor. Shirley has to stay in seedier hotels and can’t use the same restroom as white people, even though he’s the allegedly well-respected main attraction. Ultimately there’s the big end-of-tour performance in Birmingham at a white-glove country club (where Nat King Cole was once assaulted). The maitre’d, trying to appeal to Tony, explains that when the world champion Boston Celtics came to town, “even the big one didn’t get to eat in the club” after polite use of such phrases as “it’s a tradition” and “that’s how we do things down here.” Sign of the times, and one not to be forgotten.

Of all things Kurosawa

20 Nov

Brattle’s full week of ‘Kurosawa in History’ shows how West was won by East’s auteur

 

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One thing I dislike when reading about film: reviews or other critical pieces infused with the word “I.” It’s not about you, it’s about the art, and letting your words about the art convert that “I.”

That said, here “I” go – and I promise to get to Akira Kurosawa, but indulge me for a moment.

Growing up, I wasn’t really that big a film fan. Granted we had only three channels the aerial could catch, and living in a town of 3,000 you had to drive two towns away to find our single-screen theaters, which didn’t get “Star Wars” until six months after its opening. (One was just an auditorium in a town hall.) So for me as a kid, film was mostly John Wayne and Godzilla, and while I couldn’t get enough of the man in the rubber suit, I didn’t like the former much – he seemed phony and too righteous, when the world around me was a darker, less black and white place. You knew things didn’t get resolved by some beefy human with a twangy drawl riding in at high noon, guns blazing.  

The one other movie during this era that grabbed me was “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964). Not only was Clint Eastwood’s no-name badass cool and scruffily handsome, he answered Wayne with moral ambiguity; in those spaghetti westerns the good and the righteous often got their asses kicked, hard. Even with its quirk and dark, tongue-in-cheek humor, Sergio Leone’s cornerstone western felt genuine, authentic from the top down the first time I saw it – and it still does today, hundreds of screenings later. (Though over time there would become many Wayne films I would came to adore – “The Shootist,” “Stagecoach,” perhaps mostly “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.”)

Flash forward to college. As part of my English major at a small liberal arts school, film was on my eclectic list of elective, dubbed “clapping for credit” and quite popular with athletes (I’ll let you all guess my two sports) because the professor, a man named Roger Farrand used to lecture us for a scant half-hour, then roll film; by the time the lights came up, there was maybe five to 10 people remaining of the 30-plus people enrolled. He loved film so much and was so excited by it that if you paid attention during his preamble you could walk out and still safely get a B – he told you everything you needed to know for a quiz or paper. Continue reading

Widows

17 Nov

‘Widows’: Their husbands left with a job to do, and if goes even a little wrong, it’s their funeral

film still of three characters in a sauna exchanging money

The latest from “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen could have easily been called “Bastards” and worked as well. As is, “Widows” is a sweeping heist movie that plays out in alluring shards spliced together kinetically by editor Joe Walker, who’s teamed with McQueen on several projects. Early on we get loving embraces between a soft teddy bear of a man named Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his betrothed Veronica (Viola Davis). Could a couple be any more perfect? We cut to Harry pulling off a guns-blazing armored car job. The authorities are hot on his tail, but he’s got his crackpot team he tells to “stick to the plan” as bullets rain down. But things don’t go as planned, and soon we’re left with the trio of the title.

Joining Veronica are Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), all three pretty much left high and dry by their exes, and it does’t provide any solace that local gangster Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), whom Harry ripped off, comes knocking and wants his dough back. There’s nothing left to square up with, and Jamal’s sociopathic brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) lurks at every turn, so what’s a trio of ladies in mourning to do? Simple: Execute the next job detailed in Harry’s secret notebook, pay off Jamal and start anew.

Easier said than done, especially when you learn your driver can’t drive. A quick call to “Baby Driver” might have fixed that, but remember, folks, this is an all-woman affair. Add to the mix the shifting sands of Chicago politics as Jamal runs for alderman against an old-school pol by the name of Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) whose pa (Robert Duvall) held the post in the past and fancies himself something of a power broker.

If the plot and cast couldn’t get anymore crowded, why not throw in Jacki Weaver (think of her performance in “Animal Kingdom”) as Alice’s mother. She likes the good life so much, she’s willing to sign her daughter up as a high-end escort, and isn’t it a blessing that Lukas Haas (the wide-eyed kid from “Witness”) pops up as her john named David? There’s a lot of moving parts and plenty of action. Bored you will not be.

Behind the lens, McQueen, like David Fincher helming “Gone Girl,” orchestrates the noisy fray and rippling plot within a plot with artful care. It helps that he’s blessed with an embarrassment of riches in the casting. Kaluuya, so good in “Get Out,” gets squandered here, but Henry and Cynthia Erivo, seen recently in “Bad Times at the El Royale” and a scene-grabber here as a late add to the crew, score quiet knockouts. Debicki, a tall, angular blonde with a blend of gangly, goofy sensuality that calls to mind a young Laura Dern, registers the fullest character onscreen. We get knowing resignation offset by a warm smile as she accepts the next shitty hand she’s dealt. Alice can’t catch a break, and that’s how the film wants it. These women are more than survivors when their backs are against the wall, that much is clear early on, though the action often feels heavy handed. The shifting lines of race and gentrification and behind-the-scenes political jockeying and backroom deals feel like something right out of a Richard Price novel and make for the most alluring subplot of the film – made even more so by the vitriolic relationship between Farrell’s son and Duvall’s megalomaniacal father – though never fully developed. It could have been its own movie. As is, the film hangs squarely on Davis holding it all together with pursed lips, unbending posture and a laser stare. 

The story by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, whose other projects “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects,” were similarly steeped in webs of crime, circumstance, depraved pasts and hidden agendas, is based loosely on a British TV crime drama, and Flynn knows how to get you on the hook. She’s just yet to master the reel-in, and the wrap-up comes as something of a shrug. It’s not quite as significant or moving as you might hope, but getting there’s an electric, Windy City Slip ’N Slide full of unsavory characters in the shadows and the front office – almost all of them men.

The Other Side of the Wind

11 Nov

‘The Other Side of the Wind’: Welles’ final bow is a 1960s trip, an artifact, a triumphant mess

 

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Once of the best films you can catch right now, you can’t catch in a theater. It is a new release from an American filmmaking maverick, starring a filmmaking maverick and about a filmmaking maverick. If that sounds recursive, it is, and well-intended – it’s a movie within a movie, and something of an in-your-face takedown of Hollywood, like Robert Altman’s “The Player” in 1992. It’s also got shades of 1960s psychedelic pop (think “The Trip”), gobs of over-sexualized free-love fetish petting by the camera (think “Barbarella”) and, well, the Kardashian butt decades before it became a thing.

The film might offend some, be dismissed by others as a “better left where it was” lesser effort or hailed as masterpiece by more discerning eyes. Still not with me? The late-arriving, posthumous work is Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” a project begun in 1970 that was finally this year pulled together, edited and released for theaters in Los Angeles and other cities and for streaming on Netflix with the not-to-be-missed companion documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” by “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” director Morgan Neville – a making-of film doc that’s worthy of comparison with “Burden of Dreams” (1982) and “Hearts of Darkness” (1991). 

“The Other Side of the Wind” is both the name of the (mockumentary) film about a legendary filmmaker making his last film on the last day of his life, and the film being shot, which is loosely but best described as a surreal road lust flick – more on that later. The filmmaker, J. J. Hannaford, is played by John Huston (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The Maltese Falcon”) whose gruff voice and cagey demeanor call to mind Pa Hemingway. His film project’s in financial trouble (as was Welles’, which was financed by the Shah of Iran) and there’s myriad hangers-on including Mercedes McCambridge, Edmund O’Brien, a young Peter Bogdanovich (who would shoot“The Last Picture Show” and more during its filming) as Hannaford’s onset biographer, Geoffrey Land as a Robert Evans-style producer, and Susan Strasberg channeling Pauline Kael for her film critic role.

You can see where where Welles is going with the rambling project, which he shot willy-nilly over the years. At one point, as the documentary tells us, Welles was rooming with Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd’s house while shooting. The film within the film stars Welles’ latter-years love, Oja Kodar (co-writer) as simply “The Actress” and TV star Robert Random as a Jim Morrison-looking hunk named John Dale, who says little and mostly provides boy toy pleasure for Kodar’s passion seeker, more metaphorically looking for meaning and her place in the universe. For much of the surreal cutaways, Kodar, a Croatian beauty, appears naked, the camera hanging on her ample posterior. Some of the scenes are brilliantly shot, with a great psychedelic-blues score.

Probably the cheesiest is the bathroom orgy scene, which is lurid and alluring, but then there’s the sex scene in a muscle car when the driver suddenly realizes his girlfriend and a stranger are having sex as he drives. It’s done on a rain-soaked night, shot and edited with a hypnotic eroticism. It’s interesting to learn in the documentary that the car the whole time was stationary, and that the torrential rain was the result of three men with garden hoses – to think back, the scene is even more of a win than initially perceived. The documentary and film deepen each other in unsuspecting ways.

The documentary not only underscores the difficulty Welles had making the film financially (he actually created a shell corporation to game the Shah) but also the struggles the filmmaker had as an outcast from Hollywood, ever tied to his freshman effort, “Citizen Kane” (1941), hailed universally as the greatest movie ever made. 

For those familiar with the works of Welles, “The Other Side of the Wind” is more in line with “F for Fake” (1973) than his more renowned black and white efforts (“A Touch of Evil” and “Chimes at Midnight”). Given his career, it seems fitting that “The Other Side” ultimately made it to the screen. For me it’s an eye-popping wonderment steeped in incredible circumstance. Given the Hollywood history, I was just happy to hear Houston’s indelible voice shouting out direction offscreen to the buxom Kodar, standing in the far off distance of a desert with a phallic something protruding in the fore.