Archive | May, 2019

Non-Fiction

18 May

‘Non-Fiction’: Léonard writes what he knows, which is philandering and a great deal of chat

 

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Ah, a baguette, warm and chewy and oh so very French. You can feel and taste it, and that’s how “Non-Fiction,” the latest from Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Summer Hours”) goes down, with copious crumbs of provocative dialogue falling from the lips of a few not so discreet but very charming members of the bourgeoisie.

Those under Assayas’ lens are not your typical ilk. Bearded, wild-haired Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) pens the happenings in his life – just ask his ex-wife – under the guise of fiction, pouring sauce on it the way Bukowski and Mailer did. He’s not so much the macho brute those other two postured to be, but he does pursue sensual pleasure at others’ expense; for years he’s been bedding Selena (Juliette Binoche), the wife of his publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet). Selena’s no bored “Belle de Jour,” as in her day job she plays a policewoman (more like Frances McDormand from “Fargo” than Angie Dickinson) in a popular TV series. Then there’s Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), Léonard’s live-in girlfriend who’s a political aide. And, not to complicate matters, but Alain’s carrying on with Laure (Christa Théret), a fresh young face in the office who’s also the face of the future; she’s been brought in to take the publisher boldly into the digital age.

Beyond that tangled web of sexual allegiances (which is plenty), there’s not a lot of rising dramatic tension. The four mains mostly consume wine and talk with banal disregard about life, the increasing allure and power of social media and, as Carver would have it, love. There does come a point in the film when Selena realizes that Leonard, who can’t help but pour himself outward onto a page, might share some of their (not so) private moments – take the public sexcapade in a movie theater – with his readership. Along the way, a political scandal and the films of Michael Haneke and Luchino Visconti find their way into the mix, and Binoche get a smartly imbedded meta moment that Robin Wright in her “The Congress” endeavor (2013) would surely appreciate.

If there’s one thing nearly all of the quartet seem concerned with, it’s straight-up change, fearing or embracing it and what it means for their futures. At one point a character pulls a line from Visconti’s “Leopard” (“Things must change in order to remain the same.”) to put it all into context. The film itself does exactly that, never waning, not even during the long awkward pauses. It’s a French film loaded with cinematic references that will serve as a double feast for cineastes. Assayas may have gone a touch off course with his last film, a ghost story starring Kristen Stewart, “Personal Shopper,” but it’s good to see him back. Not enough can be said about the cast – Binoche and Théret provide the most to chew on, but this is an ensemble effort. Talking in circles like this hasn’t been this much fun since “My Dinner With Andre” (1981).

Aniara

18 May

‘Aniara’: Another trip to deep space goes awry, a getting away from it all that demands escape

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Much of this sleek Swedish sci-fi flick may feel borrowed from the recent, grim “High Life” from the unlikely source of Claire Denis, but its roots go back to the similarly named 1956 poem by Nobel laureate Harry Martinson. Like Denis’ contemplation on loneliness, lust and what constitutes law and righteousness beyond the outer limits, “Aniara” dumps us aboard an outer space cruise ship occupied by souls from wildly varying social strata. The vast voyager comes replete with discos and gourmet eateries, but it is not a vacation, not by any means. Those aboard are en route to a Martian colony because Earth has become uninhabitable.

Not long into the journey something goes bump, and The Aniara gets knocked off course and on a trajectory out of the solar system and into deep space. The initial projection of two years to get the engines back to full capacity and get back on course comes as a bit of a bummer – it was supposed to take three weeks to get to Mars – but hey, they have unlimited algae, so all’s good, right? No. Plans don’t go accordingly, timelines shift, cults form and society devolves into chaotic semi-lawfulness. Think Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel “High-Rise” (2016) and you’d have the right idea.

It’s a piquant setup and something of an existential exercise, pitting hope against the torturous throes of not knowing. As adapted by first-time feature filmmakers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, the time-hopping narrative orbits around a strawberry-haired woman blessed with the gender opposite moniker of MR (Emelie Jonsson). MR proves quite the gravitational point; she’s the tech who runs the mental relaxation room known as Mima. The small, seatless amphitheater’s something like your favorite bar and bartender without the hangover – kind of: While resting in an inverted yogi Savasana pose, waves of flame shoot across the ceiling of Mima while visitors in their hyper-relaxed state take walks along the beach or a stroll through a verdant forest. In short, they get to go to their happy place. As the reality of return becomes increasingly glum, the demand for Mima spikes. And even there, the prospect for virtual escapism begins to become something of a shop of horrors.

The catch with “Aniara” becomes its overly ambitious scope, which begs for the razor eye of a master (say Kubrick or Tarkovsky); Kågerman and Lilja get the grandness and wonderment of the universe beyond right, but their chapter-esque jumps in time tend to break apart what came before. MR ultimately pairs up with fellow female crew member Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), so there’s something at risk emotionally and we’re reassured that true human companionship bears more value than a visit to Mima – phew. Years out, as prospects gray and the suicide rate skyrockets, folk still party like its 1999, engage in ritualistic orgies and even bear babies. Is it sustainable? It turns out space is a very cold place to contemplate time.

Trail by Fire

17 May

‘Trial by Fire’: On death row after arson trial, but he finds a new hope (if not a new story)

 

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Anti-death penalty films tend to land far and wide. There are hits (“Dead Man Walking,” “The Green Mile”) and misses (“The Life of David Gale”), much of it hinging on degree of subtlety vs. preachy, manipulative overtones. Sure, the talent involved matters, but so do tenor and posture. “Trial by Fire,” from Edward Zwick (“Glory” and “The Last Samurai”) lands closer to the “Dead Man Walking” side of the field than sermonic foul territory. It’s something of a nifty crime drama too.

Adapted from David Grann’s haunting 2009 “New Yorker” article of the same name, “Trial by Fire” plays us for our stereotypes the way a courtroom might. Two days before Christmas 1991, in a poor Texas ’burb, Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a man with a bedraggled mullet, pentagram tattoos, no job, no education and several run-ins with the law on his record, watches his house go up in flames with his three baby girls inside. Later that night he’s drinking at the bar and playing darts, reveling in all the donations that have rolled in. 

It’s not pretty, and next comes sordid details of his marriage (wife Stacy, played by Emily Meade, was at work at the time of the fire). It all comes out in the courtroom after investigators examining the remains of the charred house – one expert articulating, “Fire doesn’t destroy evidence. Fire creates evidence” – deem it an arson-engineered death trap and charge Willingham with the crime. 

As the film sets it (or us) up, Willingham’s guilty as hell – and just like that, off to death row he goes. The script by Geoffrey Fletcher plays with time and our sensibilities as it goes along. Willingham’s trial lawyer seems competent during the initial defense, but not so in a rewind, and then there are the shifting accounts from eyewitnesses (we saw what they saw, and they tell it differently on the stand). It’s enough to cast doubt but not enough for a retrial. Willingham and the film get a big boost when Laura Dern’s Elizabeth Gilbert (not the “Eat, Pray, Love” author), a compassionate single mother with two teens, embarks on a letter-writing relationship with Willingham and jumps in on his defense. 

O’Connell, a British actor (“Unbroken”) whose stock should rise in the wake of “Trial by Fire,”  does an affectingly palpable job of selling us on his transformation into a more educated and balanced person behind bars. Meade and Dern are likewise commendable. It’s a heavy film with a heavy agenda that lets us know that Texas executes five times as many death row inmates as the next death penalty state, and Project Innocence gets rolled in too. It’s not overtly (and unnecessarily) manipulative until late in the game. Its points about the weaknesses of the justice system are provocative and real considerations to deliberate. 

Rafiki

10 May

‘Rafiki’: Kenyan love story is rife with politics, including a true-life oppression of gay culture

 

There’s a lot of stuff to talk about before getting to the cinematic merits of “Rafiki.” The film, about two lovers from opposing political families, is reminiscent of “Romeo and Juliet,” and the Swahili title translates to something innocuous and good (“friend”); neither are the reason for the film’s notoriety. “Rafiki,” directed by Wanuri Kahiu, was the first film out of Kenya to make the lineup at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival – and on the uglier side, was banned in that country, Kahiu’s homeland, which still has (but is debating repealing) colonial-era laws making homosexuality illegal, punishable by up to 14 years in jail.

The reason for the film ban wasn’t explicitly those antiquated and oppressive laws, but because it portrayed a same-sex couple in a positive light. “Homosexuality is a reality,” a film board member said regarding the decision, “What we are against is the endeavor to show that as a way of life in Kenya.” Kahiu was asked to alter the ending – but refused and sued. A judge ultimately flipped the decision, writing, “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society whose moral foundation will be shaken by watching a film depicting a gay theme.” 

Beyond the courtroom brouhaha, the film still serves as badge of courage and perseverance for the Kenyan LGBTQ community for residing under such duress. At the heart of Kahiu’s film, which is based on the short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko, are two young women with different ideals. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) has plans to go to nursing school, while Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a wide-eyed free spirit blessed with cool, colorful dreads, wants to break out and explore the world. In their first encounter Ziki pooh-poohs Kena’s mundane aspirations and encourages her to raise the bar. It’s love at first witty barb, but if the inherently hostile nature of the social climate doesn’t provide a big enough obstacle, their fathers’ political rivalry jockeying over a council seat threatens their blissful budding even more.

The pair’s palpably felt companionship – the realization of that rare human connection with someone who gets you, thoroughly and intimately – is the heart and soul of the endeavor, and what makes it such a joy. Given the glum setting in “the Slopes,” a term for the seedy outskirts of Kenya’s capital,“Rafiki” would be an entirely different film without this notion of hope. Perhaps it would be as moving (unlikely), but sadly so, as only a reminder of barren prospects and the pointlessness of dreaming. 

It’s a good thing Kahiu didn’t back down on her principles. For Westerners, her portrait affords a look inside a culture and a country we’re not normally exposed to. To all, it’s a potent reminder that such practices of open oppression still exist. And inside that country, it’s most definitely a demand for progress.

Shadow

10 May

‘Shadow’: Things aren’t just black and white for dynasties preparing a bloody red rematch

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Before Chinese director Zhang Yimou got into wuxia-infused dynasty dramas (“House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero”) he wove provocative, intimate tales of personal struggle (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “The Story of Qui Ju” and “Not One Less”) that edged into the political (one, “To Live” was banned in China). In 2016, perhaps rattled by the ascent of Trump in American politics, he jumped the shark with the “The Great Wall” a cockamamie actioner with Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe checking in as Western avengers of sorts saving China from a horde of ravaging monsters. Yeah. The good news – and it’s relative, mind you – is that Zhang’s latest, “Shadow,” marks a return to form, even if the plot is something of writhing nest of snake to untangle.

Somewhere in an ancient “great walled” country (clearly China, but fictitious, nonetheless) two clans remain at uneasy odds after ganging up to conquer a vying third. The Yan and Pei dynasties decide to settle who rules the lands by setting forth their best warrior in a winner-take-all contest. During that cage match the great legionary for the Pei, Zi Yu (Chao Deng) is wounded severely, but all the Yan take in victory is an impregnable mountainside city.

If that already feels like a lot to chew on, it’s just the backstory. In the now, the Pei king (Ryan Zheng, serving up a wonderful rendering of feverish instability) is something of a delusional fop who favors political appeasement by marrying off his sister (Xiaotong Guan) to the young Yan prince (Lei Wu). It’s an idea she despises, and with cause. To make matters more complicated (can they be?), there’s a more central thread about the Pei king and his “shadow,” a double named Jing Zhou (also played by Chao, pulling off the double duty with aplomb). That’s right, quicker than you can say Jean-Claude Van Damme or “Double Impact,” in a dank subterranean cave, the wounded warlord – slender, hobbled and disheveled, also with a dash of madness – trains his doppelgänger for a grudge match with the victorious Yan warrior. Then there’s the matter of Zi Yu’s wife, Madam (Li Sun) and the budding of a romantic triangle. More plots within plots.

It takes nearly half the film before Zhang delivers the anticipated hyperkinetic goods as the Pei, armed with razor-barbed umbrellas, literally slide into the Yan city and duke it out with their halberd-wielding rivals. What’s most noticeable throughout the film is the palette Zhang and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao choose: Everything’s dank and drab, black or white or some washed out shade of gray – I’m not sure there’s ever an outside scene when it’s not raining – except for gratuitous spurts of crimson blood. Part of that choice is clearly thematic, most visually obvious when the two warriors fight atop a black and white, yin-yang symbol. The obvious representations of the forces of light and darkness are not, in this case, explicitly just good and evil, but more the nuanced contemplation of madness and corruption versus loyalty and a just rule.

Zhang has cited Kurosawa as major influence, and you can see it clearly on display in “Shadow.” It’s also got Shakespearean bones, but it’s no “Ran.” (Few films are.) While it’s better than an also-ran, the serpentining plots within might give you a touch of head spins before the gorgeous, grand spectacle of battle, dueling zithers and venomous final bow.

 

Of Start Ups and Pop Ups

8 May

Pop-ups such as Community Phone fill a void where view could be long-empty storefronts

 

John LaGue, with business partner James Graham, has moved Community Phone, a small phone service provider, into pop-up space in Harvard Square: a former Starbucks on Church Street. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Community Phone, a small phone service provider, has been in pop-up digs in the heart of Harvard Square for three months now, and may be out on the street by midsummer. That might be nerve-racking for proprietors with tightly focused strategic plans and warehoused inventory; the youthful founders of this startup aren’t worried at all. They’re month to month in the old Starbucks coffee shop on Church Street and, like the low-cost cellular plans they offer and tailor to customers’ needs, are adaptable, lean and flexible.

The company, incorporated more than a year ago by James Graham and John LaGue, 20-something Wisconsinites, began hawking its product on the street, but with help from the Harvard Business Square Association and executive director Denise Jillson, reached an agreement with 31 Church St. landlord Janet Cahaly. She had her own motivation: not having a storefront vacant for a long time before finding a longer-term commercial tenant that would pay market rates.“Landlords really do want to do the right thing,” Jillson said.

The Starbucks closed in November, while the Cambridge Artists Cooperative down the street announced in April it can no longer afford to stay in Harvard Square and will be gone by June 30. A basement-level Fire + Ice restaurant that closed in September 2016 has yet to be filled – though its signs are still up. The clothing store LF closed on Church Street, telling The Harvard Crimson that “Harvard Square is not a shopping destination anymore,” while keeping a Newbury Street location in Boston.

Community Phone, whose customers have an average age around 58, has installed a rotary phone to help test customers’ mobile phones. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Community Phone buys service wholesale from cellular networks such as AT&T and Sprint and passes savings on to end users. What’s special is the customer service, LaGue said. “There’s no waiting on a phone or in a long in-store queue. You just walk in and talk to one of us,” he said, literally helping an octogenarian with a cane enter to ask a question. “Plus it’s 100 percent hassle free. You don’t have to do anything – we take care of moving your plan and setting you up.”

The space is inviting, spartan yet cozy, with crate-like barriers and a café ambiance. Up front, a giant stuffed bear – nearly twice the size of an adult – greets customers, and old Starbucks Christmas decorations still frame the large window pane. The store keeps a classic rotary-dial phone (operating off the cellular network) on hand to dial the mobiles they set up, a way to test a plan and phone activations.

Community Phone’s primary aim is to make cellphone use affordable and simple. “Many of our customers are people over 55 who aren’t tech savvy,” and the average customer age is around 58, LaGue said. The other side of the customer base, now a few hundred thousand people, is small businesses and students who aren’t on family plans. The company offers flip phones in the $20 range, but also iPhones and other high-end smartphones with plans as low as $15 for unlimited calls and texting.

The real killer is data costs; LaGue cited an example of couple with a $240 monthly cellular bill. “They had a big data plan but hardly used much of it.” By dialing back the data plan and creating a family account, LaGue was able to cut their costs to less than $40 monthly. There are no contracts with Community Phone – like the company’s housing arrangement, it’s all month to month – and should it disappear tomorrow, the network providers would take over the service and accounts, though costs would likely increase by a small percent.

The company is looking to expand and offer new products, which likely means getting venture funding, LaGue said. For now, it remains on Church Street. “We are actively looking for a new location in Harvard Square, Somerville or possibly Back Bay. We are still trying to find the best way to help the most amount of people, and have several exciting partnerships in the works. No matter what, we’ll be available 24/7 over the phone and online as we always have been for our members in over 30 other states,” he said. Continue reading

How to Recycle Right

5 May

City’s recycling and composting is changing, and doesn’t always work the way you’d think

 

Cambridge recycling director Michael Orr leads a tour of the city’s Zero Waste efforts. (Photo: Kyle Klein)

The Department of Public Works announced last week that paper liquid containers such as milk cartons and juice boxes are no longer acceptable for curbside recycling – the wax and aluminum that coat the inside being extremely hard to separate during processing, according to recycling director Michael Orr.

Most coffee cups are also coated with a light plastic to prevent seepage, and also better off in the trash than in the recycling bin.

Not recycling, it turns out, is a big part of recycling.

“Waste is overbearing, and we’re trying to simplify it,” Orr said. “Much of it is knowledge and being up to date. But if you know about 80 percent, that’s a good start.”

Cambridge recycling goes to a processing facility in Charlestown before being sold.(Photo: Kyle Klein)

Changes in recycling rules results from shifting markets – you have to pay to get it removed and processed, and there are buyers for the processed materials – and changes in technology and capacity. One big ripple came early in 2018 when China, which processed nearly half of U.S. paper waste, stopped taking it, citing contamination.

A more local example: The plant our glass materials went to for processing shut down because the number of bottles dwindled, with blame going to beer manufacturers moving wholesale to cans. Orr says this is a good thing overall, as metal recycles better than glass, but created a short-term problem for the city. Such shifts in the recycling universe can mean an annual municipal expenditure for recycling that varies wildly from as low as $50,000 to a whopping $500,000 or over. Still, the cost of landfill disposal is almost double that, making recycling worthwhile fiscally as well as environmentally.

Recycling – from your kitchen into a reuse such as becoming a carpet or another beer can – is a long, multistep process. Curbside recycling is picked up by Russell, a specially equipped subcontractor based out of Somerville, and taken to the Casella processing facility in Charlestown where “single-stream,” all-in-one bins of recyclables are sorted, processed and readied for shipment to other processing facilities and sale, still primarily in Southeast Asia.

Throw it out

High contamination (such as enough of those waxy liners in milk cartons mixed in with papers) can render a bulk shipment low quality or, worse, cause it to be rejected, meaning it comes back. That can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Orr says. (A few things to note: Pizza boxes, which used to be considered contaminated if they had grease stains, are now accepted and considered highly desirable as long as the wax paper and cheesy residue is removed. Clothing hangers, no matter what material, are are not accepted curbside. Most to-go food containers are a no-go, except plastics, when cleaned. “We always talk about plastic being bad, but in this case,” Orr said, “it’s more preferable.”)

If you’re uncertain what to put curbside for recycling, the city has a website (and a “Zero Waste Cambridge” app for Android and iPhone) that lets you simply plug in what it is you want to get rid of and it tells you how to do it (including divertables such as electronics and clothing). 

The bottom line, when in doubt: Throw it out. You may be creating a bigger savings overall, even if your ecological heartstrings say otherwise.

More composting

Curbside composting – technically a waste process, not composting, because the food and organic waste doesn’t go to the countryside to decay into organic fertilized soil, but to a Waste Management processing plant in Charlestown to become high-energy soil pellets – began as a test in 2014 with 5,200 households of buildings of 12 units or less. In April 2018 it went to 25,000 households of Cambridge’s more than 44,000. It received approval and funding recently from the City Council to roll out citywide in September to the full 33,000 households participating in municipal waste removal (the other households do it themselves or use another service), and the council has asked for the program to go to small businesses and nonprofits this year also. 

The city provides residents with biodegradable compost bags, kitchen sink bins and secure outside containers that are designed to be raccoon proof, and curbside composting has helped reduce landfill waste by 7.3 percent in a year, Orr said.

Paper towels, napkins and tissues can be added to composting food waste, but only if dirtied by water or food waste. Mopping up animal vomit or tossing in materials with mucus, blood or any other bodily fluid introduces pathogens and contaminates the stream.

Things can, mind you, get a little rich on the nose anyway during the dog days of summer, but it’s all for the bigger good.

Given the cost of landfill ($100 per ton) versus recycling ($70) and composting ($60), the city runs a “Zero Waste” program with goals of landfill reduction from a 2008 benchmark of 22.8 pounds per household per week by 30 percent in 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Currently the city is at 16.36 pounds per family per week.