Archive | February, 2019

Greta

28 Feb

‘Greta’: Good deed introduces a mother figure, who must be survived with a surrogate sister

 

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Neil Jordan, who’s always existed somewhere between the arthouse and the cineplex, is responsible for such notable films as “Mona Lisa” (1986), “The Crying Game” (1992) and “Interview with the Vampire” (1994), for which, he famously paired heartthrobs Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. The Irish filmmaker hasn’t produced a feature film in more than six years (since the 2012 female vampire foray, “Byzantium”), so it’s something of a relief that we get “Greta,” a boilerplate psychological thriller that flirts deliciously with camp but sadly enjoins cliche.

At least Jordan has Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz and Maika Monroe, who leave it all up on the screen. Moretz, so lethally infectious in “Kick-Ass” (2010), stars as the object of obsession, Frances McCullen, a recent Smith College grad from Boston living in a swank New York City loft and working at an even swankier midtown eatery. The wished-you-lived-there pad comes courtesy of Frances’s bestie from Smith, Erica (Monroe) whose dad bought it for her as a graduation present or something. Life’s good, and even though this duo don’t seem to want for much, they’re relatively down to earth – maybe with the exception of Erica’s predilection for avocado colonics.

Trouble comes in the form of a Kate Spade or Gucci handbag (I can never tell them apart) that Frances finds on a subway car and returns dutifully to its owner, a widowed French woman named Greta (Huppert) who lives in a quaint country-styled bungalow tucked down a dingy back alley. It’s an odd juxtaposition, to say the least; a Hobbit shire in the middle of the Seaport (which, given the harbor shots from his office, is where Frances’s father works) might be less conspicuous. Nevertheless, little of the action takes place on the streets of NYC; “Greta” is an intimate and cloistered affair.

Not to give away too much, but the bag’s a plant by Greta, who’s not even French (she pretends to be, even through she’s from Hungary) and leverages the return to sow a motherly bond with Frances (who coincidently just lost her mother) and wheedles her way into every aspect of her surrogate daughter’s life. What begins as cute and a tad clingy becomes creepy real fast. You could think of it as “Single White Female” (1992) – the mother edition – or “Unsane”(2018), where a frustrated stalker begins to take on the ubiquitous and near-superhuman qualities of Michael Meyers.

Much hangs on Huppert, who casts a long, menacing shadow over Frances. The French actor, who rightfully earned an Academy Award nomination for her 2016 performance as a stalked woman in Paul Verhoeven’s rape-revenge psycho-sexual thriller “Elle,” has been making films since the 1970s. She’s played opposite France’s other great thespian export, Catherine Deneuve, in François Ozon’s murder-comedy, “8 Women” (2002) and appeared with Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken in Michael Cimino’s epic, post-“Deerhunter” letdown, “Heaven’s Gate” (1980). But my favorite Huppert film to date has to be France’s 1983 Best Foreign Language nominee, “Entre Nous,” about two women trying to survive occupied France during the World War II.

Moretz holds up her end of the film. Her Frances is more actively resilient and nuanced than most victims in these types of endeavors, though plot wise she’s more the focal point for Huppert’s maniacal moonshot to orbit. The real revelation here is Monroe, who might feel like a fresh face but appeared in Sophia Coppola’s “Bling Ring” (2013) and more notably, anchored the quirky cult chiller, “It Follows” (2014). Here as the compassionate can-do roomie she exudes a tang of Sharon Stone moxie, but the real win is the sisterly bond she and Moretz form on screen – a touch of Huppert and Miou-Miou in “Entre Nous.” It’s genuine enough to raise the stakes and Jordan, clearly aware he’s playing with genre, tries to avoid the usual trappings. For the most part he does, but not completely.

Wage Theft

28 Feb

Managers underpaid, stole tips, threatened, Happy Lamb Hot Pot workers say at protest

 

Protesters march and hand out fliers outside Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Central Square on Wednesday. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A frigid Wednesday night threatening snow didn’t deter about 40 to 50 workers and supporters, including officials from Cambridge and Boston, from assembling outside Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Central Square to protest alleged wage theft by management.

The rally aimed “to call attention to the pervasive wage theft, retaliation and abuse [workers] have experienced since working at the popular restaurant,” according to a Chinese Progressive Association press release. A legal action seeking an eye-grabbing $800,000 was filed late last year, based on triple damages for violations of failure to pay minimum-wage workers for labor and overtime, ignored sick time mandates, tip theft and retaliation against some plaintiffs, said Bethany Li, an attorney and director of the Asian Outreach Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services representing the nine Latino and Asian workers. The claim is “just at the beginning,” but lawyers have already “begun to exchange numbers” and negotiate with Happy Lamb management, Li said.

Happy Lamb Hot Pot, which opened March 2016 and operates under the umbrella of an international chain called Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, is managed by northeast regional manager William Cheung. A second Happy Lamb Hot Pot opened in Chinatown in October. Li said it’s unclear if the restaurants are franchised, spun off or part of the bigger international organization.

Only one plaintiff still works at the Cambridge location, at 485 Massachusetts Ave., Li said.

State Rep. Mike Connolly, rear, and Boston city councilor Ed Flynn, by the restaurant’s “open” sign, join the rally. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Happy Lamb’s culinary appeal is its assortment of boiling Mongolian broths used to cook ingredients at the table. Broths come mild or spicy, and diners can choose half portions for “the best of both worlds.” The main meat offering is lamb shoulder shaved thin, like prosciutto. There’s also beef, ox tongue and chicken – and Happy Lamb has a strong  4.5 rating on Yelp.

According to Li and Chinese Progressive Association executive director Karen Chen, the wage theft came to light during a legal clinic put on by Greater Boston Legal Services at the association’s center in Chinatown. Chen said there was real fear among many of the plaintiffs. One former worker cited being threatened by a butcher knife, and others who testified at the rally said they were subject to physical abuse.

The rally – headlined by the chant, “Happy Lamb, you’re a sham, treat your workers right” – also featured a festive dragon dancer in colorful garb and several members of Jobs With Justice, who marched and chanted in an elongated oval under the watchful eyes of bundled-up Cambridge police. Adding political clout to the proceedings were Cambridge city councillors Sumbul Siddiqui and Quinton Zondervan; state Rep. Michael Connolly; and Boston city councilor Ed Flynn. 

Employees inside Happy Lamb seemed unfazed, though some early diners and passers-by seemed impressed and amenable to taking fliers calling for “justice” in English and Spanish. Attempts to reach Cheung or other management for comment were unsuccessful before and after the rally. 

Get on the Bus

28 Feb

Proposals to change four Cambridge bus lines draw concern, little enthusiasm, at a hearing

 

The prospect of longer walk times to some bus stops and longer waits at others raised eyebrows Tuesday at a “Better Bus Project” hearing with the City Council’s Transportation and Public Utilities Committee, but residents’ ability to alter MBTA plans seemed limited.

Proposed Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority changes to some bus lines were “a real concern” that held “academic implications” for children who rely on the buses, councillor Alanna Mallon said, and other councillors had other concerns, such as Dennis Carlone’s note of still unmet needs for more robust public transportation in business districts such as Kendall Square and around the Alewife T station.

State officials plan to roll out the changes Sept. 1.

As presented to the committee Tuesday at City Hall by Tegin Teich, a transportation planner with the city’s Community Development Department, Cambridge bus lines will see the removal of two Harvard Square loop stops on the Route 1 bus (down Massachusetts Avenue to Dudley Square in Boston); more Kendall Square and less University Park on the Route 64 bus(Central Square to Oak Square in Brighton), creating an all-day link between Allston-Brighton and Kendall Square along Main Street; a combining of the 70 and 70A buses to Waltham; and changes to lines between Harvard Square and Belmont that would run the 72 line to Aberdeen Avenue only at peak hours and shift 75 buses from Fresh Pond Parkway to Huron Avenue all weekdays and Saturdays. Continue reading

Wings and Yummy Things

24 Feb

Restaurants arrive on red line as destinations for diners seeking Asian, French, small plates

 

Jae’s Cafe is in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Along the red line in each of our three northernmost squares, eateries with time-tested roots have popped up within the past month.

Jae’s Cafe is in Somerville’s Davis Square at what was the Korean restaurant Meju. If the name seems familiar, Jae’s was a popular pan-Asian restaurant franchise in Boston and Cambridge in the 1990s and early 2000s. It never officially went away – there’s still a Jae’s in Pittsfield, and owner Jae Chung owns Koreana in Central Square, one of the few places in town to get Korean barbecue at your table. The menu for Jae’s has traditionally been a blend of classic Thai (Pad Thai), Korean (Bibimbap) and sushi staples; on Elm Street locale, the focus is more on Korean. The rebranding comes as no surprise, though the timing is interesting, as Chung had become involved in the ownership of Meju last year after the eatery began to languish. Jae’s will face the same challenges as Meju: a heavy concentration of competition. There are seven other Asian restaurants in the area, including Sugidama Soba & Izakaya, Genki Ya Sushi and two ramen restaurants. It is, however, the only Korean venue.

243 Elm St., Davis Square.

Colette in Porter Square. (Photo: Colette via Facebook)

One T stop down, the French bistro Colette has finally opened in a long-vacant restaurant and lounge spaceon the ground level of the Porter Square Hotel. The eatery, which offers a French cafe-style breakfast as well as Francophile dinner offerings, is operated by Loic Le Garrec and Sandrine Rossi. The duo, natives of France, run sister restaurants over in Boston: Petit Robert Bistro on Columbus Avenue, and Frenchie in the South End. The dinner menu features classic French Onion Soup ($11), Wild Mushroom Vol au Vent (a mushroom-filled flaky pastry for $13), Nicoise Cannelloni Coq au Vin (pasta stuffed with chicken, mushrooms and bacon for $12), Steak Frites ($32) and, aptly, a grilled Porterhouse steak you can sink your teeth into for a eye-popping, but not off-the-charts, $78. The cut is arguably named after Zachariah B. Porter, who ran a hotel and steakhouse across Massachusetts Avenue in the late 19th century, while the restaurant in part is named after the 20th century French writer and performer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.

1924 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square. Continue reading

Old Pop

24 Feb

Rule about soda vending machines in schools can bend for vintage item that just popped up

 

A vintage Pepsi machine is on display after being found at the Maria L. Baldwin School. (Photo: Tom Meek)

As winter set in last year, parent Christopher Lim made an unexpected discovery among the custodial tools and snow removal equipment at The Maria L. Baldwin School: a vintage Pepsi vending machine.

The inert machine is on display outside administrator offices, sparking awe from passers-by who marvel at the mechanical simplicity, time-tested craftsmanship and classic Pepsi scripture. The irony of its discovery and current station: soft drink vending machines aren’t allowed in Cambridge Public Schools.

At first, the machine was thought to date back to World War II, but close examination of an attached distributor plate shows a 1954 patent date – which doesn’t preclude it from being older, but makes the earlier estimate less likely.

The vintage machine bears a message that also feels out of date in a Cambridge elementary school. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The machine probably arrived at the Agassiz neighborhood school by the hand of a custodian who retired more than a decade ago. Joseph “Buddy” Signorelli, assistant principal John Roderick said, “liked to drive around in his pickup truck and pick things up. There’s an old oval glass table out there too.” (Attempts to reach Signorelli for comment were unsuccessful.) 

The storage locker where it was discovered, while part of the school’s main structure, is accessible only from the outside, as it houses seasonal equipment and snow melting agents – likely helping the Pepsi machine remain hidden for at least a decade. For safety reasons, Roderick said, the machine has been taped shut.

Being stashed in storage with snow removal equipment helped hide the machine for more than a decade. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Lim had thought to sell the machine to benefit Baldwin Blooms, an annual fundraiser run by parents and friends to raise money for school trips. As is, the machine could fetch a couple of hundred dollars, maybe even crest a grand – but refurbished and working, it could be worth as much as $10,000. As of now it still sits in the school hallway, a nod to the past and a curio. “How much did a soda cost back then?” a curious elementary schooler asked. “Probably a nickel,” an accompanying adult replied. “Wow,” the child said.

Perhaps the machine might be good for remedial math problems and simple economic principles – such as inflation and cost of living increases.

Oscar-palooza

24 Feb

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Looking back on a year of film reviews, here’s how I rank the Best Picture nominees critically. As far as tonight goes, it’s wide open, with “Roma,” “Green Book” and “A Star is Born” the favorites. If “Roma” wins it, it will be the first foreign language film to win Best Picture and is only one of five films nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture—“Z” (1969), “The Emigrants” (1972), “The Postman” (1995), “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and “Amour” (2012).

  1. BlacKkKlansman
  2. Roma
  3. A Star Is Born
  4. The Favourite
  5. Black Panther
  6. Green Book
  7. Vice
  8. Bohemian Rhapsody

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Never Look Away

15 Feb

‘Never Look Away’: Germany’s Oscar entry takes artistic license with historic traumas

 

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The German Best Foreign Language Film nominee for the Oscars, “Never Look Away” has stiff competition coming at it next weekend from “Capernaum” (Lebanon), “Cold War” (Poland), “Roma” (Mexico) and “Shoplifters” (Japan) – films that crowned many Top 10s last year regardless of language, begging the question: Is it worthy to be in such a distinguished field,arguably the best in years?

Well, yes and no. It’s a stirring cinematic achievement, gorgeously shot, well-acted and peppered with piquant daubs of erotica, but at three-plus hours and with a slightly mawkish protagonist, “Never Look Away” never gets into your bones the way its competitors do. A fictionalized account of abstract artist Gerhard Richter’s life, the film – as most biopics do – begins with the stand-in youth, Kurt (Cai Cohrs) growing up in Dresden in the 1930s and living through the infamous Dresden firebombing, which, when rendered onscreen, is itself grandly reimagined through an abstract lens. Long before the catastrophic event, however, in a telling setup, the wide-eyed Kurt is taken to an art gallery by his eccentric and comely aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). A Nazi guide promptly demeans and dismisses the works of foreign greats such as Picasso, but it’s during the visit that Kurt discoveries his inner passion to paint, and his aunt, who often parades around the house nude, instructs him: “Everything that is true is beautiful” and therefore he should “never look away.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that Elizabeth’s free-spiritedness is mental illness. Kurt’s parents, at a loss after a far too stark incident, place her in a sanitarium, where on the eve of the air raid she’s gassed by the hospital’s director Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, reminiscent of a young Bruno Ganz – though with a stronger chin and steelier gaze). Depressing indeed, but where there is fire there is rebirth.

The film, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who notched an Oscar for his 2006 contemplation on the devious impact of the Stasi turning citizens against each other in “The Lives of Others” (which also starred Koch), postures the ambition of an epic – it certainly has the historical scope and running time of one. After the bombing we lurch forward to a postwar Kurt, now a young man (played by the dewy-eyed, handsome Tom Schilling), diligently painting away at an art school. It’s there that he falls for a fellow student named Ellie (Paula Beer), who oddly (or poetically) enough happens to be a dead ringer for Elizabeth. She’s also the daughter of Koch’s hospital director. Yes, you can see miles away where the karma connection is goingthe kind of fate you’d find in a Greek tragedy in which the players are unaware of their position as the gods – or in this case, the director – move them around to suit their purpose.

The cast has ardor, especially Beer and Koch, but the script by von Donnersmarck can’t match it. The restrictions of the biopic-shaped arc can take some blame. (Richter, apprised of being the inspiration for the story, has expressed disdain, flagging it as a gross exaggeration.) No matter, it’s rewarding to see von Donnersmarck return to form after the 2010 debacle“The Tourist,” a mindless thriller that paired Johnny Depp with Angelina Jolie and somehow made the result sexless and dull, even pulling Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) to Hollywood hack level. Here von Donnersmarck artfully concocts a dreamy rewind of how war and shifting circumstance can afflict the passionate. Fellow nominee “Cold War” covers a similar swath of time; the last act of “Never Look Away” even unfurls with the erection of one of the greatest of all Cold War icons, the wall between East and West.