Archive | March, 2019

The Beach Bum

29 Mar

‘The Beach Bum’: McConaughey is Moondog, the weed is strong and life is all right, all right

 

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Harmony Korine, the wunderkind (as screenwriter) behind Larry Clark’s dark and disturbing 1995 chronicle of bad adolescent behavior, “Kids,” has been a dicey go when working the camera. An experimental filmmaker who’s pushed the boundaries of sex, sexual violence and despair, his work is often critically hailed but financially anemic. His first film, “Gummo” (1997), about white trash eccentrics in a depressed Ohio township, cost more than $1 million to make and grossed about $20,000. “Mr. Lonely” (2007) about celebrity impersonators in Paris, ran $9 million to put together and grossed less than $250,000. Not great math, but “Spring Breakers” – his 2013 Day-Glo crossover starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as coeds turned boat-running perps – crushed it both at the box office and with the critics. So what could go wrong with a return to sun-soaked Florida, a big-name cast and some gonzo high times? Well, sharks for one, and a muddled vape waft of a plot for two.

If you’re a fan of Matthew McConaughey’s eternal high school hound-dog in Richard Linklater’s brilliant 1993 teen comedy, “Dazed and Confused,” “The Beach Bum” will be something of a treat; he plays the maturation of that delusional soul, a party-every-day stoner named Moondog, a once-was poet famous enough to take the mic from Jimmy Buffett at a gig. Moondog hangs in the Keys, lounging on a houseboat named “Well Hung,” drinking PBRs and banging on bongo drums accompanied by buxom, naked females. It’s something of a cross between “Waterworld” and a Goya painting. But Moondog, it turns out, is a family man with a wife and daughter up in Miami. Baby girl is getting married to a guy Moondog refers to, even at the ceremony, as “Limp Dick.” 

Moondog’s wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) is loaded and lives in a seaside manse replete with infinity pools and more house staff than Tony Montana. She’s also got her own side distraction with longtime family friend and rap mogul (or maybe more of a drug dealer?) named Lingerie (Snoop Dogg, who owns every scene with aplomb). When Moondog shows up drunk in a skiff at the dock, he and Minnie immediately down a few cocktails; as she receives a poolside pedicure from an away-glancing pedicurist, Moondog performs oral sex on her. For such eccentric hedonists, their daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen, who ever seems on the verge of cracking up at McConaughey‘s goofy Moondog hijinks) is exceptionally well adjusted, aside from her choice of spouse – he’s simple a generic 9-to-5 wonk, not suited for this family by any means.

Not to give too much away, but the film could be subtitled, “A Wedding, a Funeral and a Book.” The big win to the film besides McConaughey, who has to power it along and does so with lecherous, avuncular charm, is the utterly inspired casting. I mean, there’s a duet between Jimmy Buffett and Snoop Dogg; Zac Efron shows up and smashes a wheelchair-bound elder over the head with a whiskey bottle – Korine must have some kind of vendetta against “High School Musical” – and Jonah Hill emulates the accentuated Southern twang of Strother Martin as Moondog’s money-grubbing agent. Then there’s Martin Lawrence as Captain Wack, who likes to wake and bake (his parrot needs a few lines of toot to get up and going as well) and take unwary tourists out on dolphin tours. That’s where the film jumps the shark, or I should say a shark jumps unnecessarily into the film. It’s a near fatal stroke, but nothing McConaughey‘s Moondog can’t fix with a giant blunt, a bottle of booze and some bad prose. Any decent prose that flows from Moondog is borrowed from the greats, though. The one poem we get that’s heralded by mucky-mucks is about appreciating the prowess of one’s penis to do it twice a day. 

It might be too harsh to call “Beach Bum” a spectacle of excess, the way that maybe “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998) or “Candy” (1968) were, but it’s listing in that direction. Overall the film doesn’t have the biting edge of “Spring Breakers,” but if you have a taste for Korine’s raucous rambling skids through the highs and lows of society (think “Gummo” or “Trash Humpers”) this is the grade-A Wagyu, James Beard-approved course for you. And of course there’s McConaughey. The film does’t work without him. This is a sheer shambles of cinematic poetry that’s all McConaughey.

The Mustang

28 Mar

‘The Mustang’: Breaking horses as prison task builds powerfully for quiet man in a quiet film

 

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If “The Mustang” feels like something of a redux of “The Rider,” it is, especially if you consider the nucleus of a man trying to heal through bonding with a beast and the raw beauty of the tumbleweed-dusted valleys and plains that fill the screen. Both films deal with broken men. In the case of “The Rider,” Chloé Zhao’s beautiful second feature, it was physical as well as emotional, as a brain-injured horseman confronted the near certain risk of death should he mount a steed again. In the case of “The Mustang,” there are deeper and darker elements, namely that it’s set inside the razor-wired confines of a maximum security correctional facility in Nevada.

The broken man here is Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a transfer tossed immediately in solitary confinement because of an outburst at an anger management counselor (Connie Britton).Not a good start, but Roman’s mostly a quiet, keep-to-himself kind of guy (“I’m not good with people,” he remarks). You can tell there’s simmering rage and demons inside, yet also vulnerability and compassion in those perpetually narrowed eyes. Once out of the box, Roman is assigned to shit duty – literally. The prison, because of its location in the heart of wild mustang country, runs a program to break the bucking beasts and sell them at auction – ironically, mostly to the police. For some reason, and we’re not entirely told why, Myles (Bruce Dern) the old codger who runs the equestrian side of the prison, sees something in the way Roman scoops up manure and mandates him into the program.

The horse-whispering is pretty neat and drives the film as expected, but it’s Roman’s bond with a fellow inmate, Henry (Jason Mitchell),and visits from his pregnant daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), who harbors justified animosity for her father, that cast a longer shadow. Issues of racial division are clearly etched in the yard, and there’s an illicit drug trade that threatens to drag in Roman.

Thankfully nothing about “The Mustang” is heavy handed; Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has composed a quietly powerful portrait for her first feature, with a script so spare you almost wished people expressed themselves a bit more. Her real ace in the hole, besides the majestic beast that bucks its stall viciously (it too, gets tossed in solitary) is Schoenaerts, best known for his role as a Russian baddie in the silly and misguided J-Law spy thriller “Red Sparrow” (2018), but delivering a breakout performance here. With a shaved head and dewy eyes, he looks something like a mini-me version of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and casts a presence that is at once intimidating and resilient while remaining soulful and pained, imbued with the rue of past actions. It’s a film-winning performance that’s aided just the slightest by prodding barbs from Dern’s cantankerous mentor, the warning snorts from the mercurial steed and mostly, the cagey, sassy baiting from Mitchell’s hands-on, horse-wrangling instructor.The casting and arc of emotion couldn’t be more perfect, and the final frame will surely break you.

Hotel Mumbai

28 Mar

‘Hotel Mumbai’: Caught in a terrorist attack, relying on themselves, each other to survive

By Tom Meek

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The other day I was talking with some folk about the dark comedic virtues of Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets,” which was made back in 1968 and clearly inspired by the Charles Whitman shooting spree of 1966. On that fateful Aug. 1, Whitman killed 16 people and shocked a nation that had never seen such carnage (now sadly common). It surfaced in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant antiwar film “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) when R. Lee Ermey’s indelible drill instructor extols the virtue of Whitman’s marksmanship, and two years ago, in the riveting, animated documentary “Tower,” which outlined law enforcement’s inability at the time to deal with such a threat quickly or effectively, resulting in the formation of SWAT and other tactical response units. There’s a similar case in “Hotel Mumbai,” a based-on-real-events drama revolving around a 2008 terrorist attack and ensuing siege at the world-renowned Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. As history and Anthony Maras’ feature debut has it, Mumbai, a city of more than 18 million people, essentially had no response to deal with a handful of well-coordinated extremists armed with assault weapons and a take-no-prisoners mandate.

The film’s a nail-biter, to be sure, and quite effectively paced. We get to know some of the potential victims and heroes intimately, the way we did in Paul Greengrass’ harrowing 9/11 saga, “United 93” (2006). Perhaps to give the film a more international appeal and a Western flavor, much of the action hangs on an American architect named David (Armie Hammer) and his Middle Eastern wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi). Early on, before the shit goes down, the couple joke that they should have left their newborn at home (to enjoy more romantic time together), and probably wish that were so during the attack; they spend much of the hours-long assault separated from the baby, who’s vaulted inside a palatial suite with a rightfully hysterical nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). From the staff side, we imbed with Arjun (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”), a compassionate waitperson, and the strict but fearless head chef, Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) who runs his kitchen like a military operation. Continue reading

Division in Cambridge Discussed

24 Mar

Diverse hiring in tech, ending school tracking, taxation called ways to close ‘Growing Divides’

 

Sarah Gallop of MIT and the Kendall Square Association speaks at “Growing Divides in Cambridge: A Tale of 2.0 Cities” on Thursday. With her are panelists Chuck Collins and Damon Smith. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The experts at Thursday’s talk on “Growing Divides in Cambridge: A Tale of 2.0 Cities” came with suggestions and progress reports on handling the city’s widening socioeconomic chasm.

As part of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s “Conversations on the Edge” series and moderated by Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, the panel included Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.; Sarah Gallop, co-director of the MIT Office of Government and Community Relations; and Damon Smith, the principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

Smith pointed to work on the “Level Up” program, now two years in to eradicating a structure that put students on two tracks through high school, only one headed for college, that was separated largely by family income and race. “It’s been difficult,” he said, in a city that can be most “progressive when looking outward,” but an education that was the same for every student was his offering as a solution for keeping Cambridge a united community.

Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, moderates the panel at the Cambridge Public Library’s Central Square branch Thursday. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Gallop spoke as a co-founder of the Kendall Square Association, which represents hundreds of businesses in a variety of industries. Building diversity and equity into business models is demanded by young employees as part of their working environment, she said, and will be “part of the success equation.”

Collins had the most potentially controversial part of a solution for the “global city phenomenon supercharging … four decades of extreme inequality” in places such as New York, San Francisco and Boston: a luxury real estate surtax. Kicking in on property transfers of more than $2 million, it could produce $350 million annually in Boston that would be earmarked for building affordable housing. (Boston is also looking at a “flipping tax” on property resold within two years of purchase.)

Each could help Cambridge, a “prosperous city with more jobs than people” where 15 percent of the city lived below the poverty level and “one in six children are poor,” Pradhan said – the “Tale of Two Cities” from the event title.

The “Conversations on the Edge” series was initiated by CCAE staff and board members in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to talk about issues that had no “clear answers” and engage the community. Thursday’s event drew a diverse crowd to the Cambridge Public Library’s Central Square branch. Though the event was sold out in advance, more than half of the 120 seats were empty –possibility the result of sharing a night with the fourth installment of the city’s Cambridge Digs Deep diversity series, taking place at the same time at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High school.

US

24 Mar

‘Us’: Jordan Peele’s terrific sophomore flick shows how scary it can be to fight with family

 

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Jordan Peele’s follow-up to the genre-rebranding horror classic “Get Out” (2017) is something more pure in terms of blood and gore, but not as sharp politically or socially. Not that that makes it a bad movie – I’m just not sure it’s possible to improve on “Get Out.” And while “Us” is something else entirely, it is cut from the same cloth.

What’s to know? The Wilson family are off for a summer vacation in Santa Cruz, replete with a house on the bay and an amusement park boardwalk. It sounds dreamy, but as the nuclear family rolls in there’s dread on the mother’s face, with good cause. Turns out when Addy was 10 (played by an effectively wide-eyed Madison Curry) she had an encounter with an identical girl who accosted her in the house of mirrors and, as a teen, went through years and years of therapy. They unpack, dad (Winston Duke) scores a sputtering speedboat and they take in a few beach beverages with well-off bores Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss). It’s not until they settle in that evening that a family shows up on the front lawn. A call to the cops and Duke’s Dave wielding a bat does little. Soon the summer home is invaded and the Wilsons are looking at four versions of themselves, each dressed in a red Michael Myers jumpsuit and holding mother-sized pairs of gardening shears.

Only Addy’s twin can speak; the rest make only animal noises. But their intent is clear: Separate and exterminate their original. It’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” done Jason Voorhees style.

The real fun here is watching Lupita Nyong’o play Addy and her evil “tethered” twin. She’s amazing on both sides of the equation, and it’s nice to see the Oscar-winning actress (“12 Years a Slave”) take full center stage. Duke, who costarred with Nyong’o in “Black Panther” (2018) is up to the task as well, and Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex cast as the Wilson kids are convincing both as imperiled humans on the run and the shadow demons looking to replace them.

While “Us” revolves around a black family in a largely white setting, it doesn’t have the sociopolitical punch that “Get Out” had. When Addy asks her evil who they are, she replies “We are Americans.” Perhaps it’s a light reference to equity disparity? It doesn’t matter – “Us” is best seen as a straight-up chiller that’s well crafted and fantastically acted. As Peele pulls back the camera and the plot widens, the film doesn’t quite hold its spell. Sometimes horror films on the lake are best when they stay by the lake.

The Image Book

16 Mar

‘The Image Book’: Godard’s cinematic collage will consume you, given the time and attention

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In my mind there’s a debate which director had the best decade ever. An obvious choice is Coppola in the 1970s, topping Spielberg and Scorsese with four killers (“The Godfather,” “The Godfather II,” “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now”). How do you beat that? Well, in the 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard churned out “Breathless,” “Contempt,” “Band of Outsiders,” “Weekend,” “Alphaville” and “Sympathy for the Devil,” among others. That’s a pretty stacked deck, even if folks want to debate the last two entries. For me the French New Waver’s sci-fi flick (“Alphaville”) never worked, but it’s highly regarded; and many find Godard’s chronicling of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” studio sessions stilted, intermixing what I would call their greatest song with images of the Black Panthers and negative American imagery. But you can’t make that song look or sound bad, even if you interrupt it with total nonsense.

I digress. Godard is almost 90 and he’s made more than 100 films of various lengths and formats. He’s probably not been truly relevant stateside since his 1985 take on the Virgin Mary, “Hail Mary.” In pre-sex scandal Irish Catholic Boston, where the church was a powerhouse, there were far more protesters outside the Paris Cinema on Boylston Street (now a Walgreens) than people trying to get tickets. I wonder how that would float now? Shortly afterward, Godard made a short called “Meeting Woody Allen” – again, I wonder how it might be received today?

I don’t think Godard gives a rat’s ass what folks think of his films. He’s always made the vision he wants. Initially he wanted to be a writer, and dabbled in journalism; he crossed the creative divide into making films more about themes and feelings – the theater of the absurd and, in the case of “Weekend,” the lurid.One could argue that many of his 1960s works, namely “Breathless,” about a day in the life of a petty hood in Paris (Jean-Paul Belmondo) are visual contemplations on the cycle of violence.

That’s where we are with his latest, “The Image Book,” which gets five screenings in March at the Harvard Archive, starting with two Friday. In a highly edited montage we get newsreel footage of battle, cinematic battle, lots of Godard’s own work (several chapters of the film are labeled “Remake”), even “Jaws,” some choice footage from “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” and classic Hollywood B&W snippets from the 1930s and 1950s, saturated with deep color that makes them feel like moving watercolor paintings. Like Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” (2014), a serendipitous exploration of the parallels between the travails of a couple and a dog, “Image Book” is haunting and ethereal, though edits and audio transitions are jarring at times. It’s like an ICA video installation on the early works of David Lynch: You can drop in and drop out, and it pretty much all still makes sense. It’s a building wave of emotion and social commentary that Godard has very carefully assembled. The patient will be consumed. 

Most tag Godard incorrectly as founder of the French New Wave with “Breathless” (1960), but that honor is reserved for Agnès Varda, who made “Le Pointe Courte” in 1955. She’s got a few years on Godard, and in 2017 was nominated for an Oscar for her documentary “Faces Places.” (Those French have clearly found the fountain of youth.) In 1967 she collaborated with Godard, among others, on “Far from Vietnam” a pro-North Vietnamese postcard protesting U.S. involvement in the country. That film, a college of vivid images, is a perfect companion piece for “The Image Book.”

 

Climax

9 Mar

‘Climax’: Oh, Noé, the drinks have been dosed and the dancers are all too disturbingly into it

 

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No, “Climax” has nothing to do with the New England Patriots owner and a brothel in Florida. It’s just the latest from take-him-or-leave-him French provocateur Gaspar Noé, of such haunting and stylish depictions of depravity as “Irréversible” (2002) and “Enter the Void” (2009). The former revolved around a brutal rape in a dingy Parisian underpass, while the latter unfurled a techno-charged odyssey about a soul seeking rebirth after drug deal gone wrong in the bowels of Tokyo. Here, Noé gives us a dance party that goes wildly off the rails and beyond.

“Climax” is disorienting on many levels. It begins with a blank white screen, and you half expect credits to roll before a woman in a sleeveless leotard staggers into view. It’s a top-down shot, and you realize she’s trudging through snow – and surely must be freezing. The camera zooms in and we hear wails of pain and see faint traces of blood smeared across her arms. Is it hers, you wonder, as she falls into the whiteness, writhing and contorting, creating the imprint of a bloody snow angel. Then the credits do roll. What’s this? Did someone queue the film up wrong?

It’s the only outdoor scene in the film, and an apt encapsulation of Noé‘s envelope-pushing style and its ability to pique, unsettle, enrapture and linger. After the credits, the film cuts to an old boob tube playing VHS audition tapes of dancers with names such as Cyborg, Psyche and Gazelle who tell the camera why they love to dance and want to be part of a troupe heading out on tour. Packed tightly around the television are DVD binders of “Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom,” “Suspiria,” “Taxi Driver” and similarly macabre flicks. It’s a pretty good indication of where this is all going – kind of. Continue reading