Archive | June, 2019

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation

15 Jun

‘Woodstock’ doc comes to Kendall big screen with too small a vision for moment it honors

 

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“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” (2019) should never be confused with the indelible 1970 rock-doc “Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music” that captured the iconic concert in all its ragtag glory and raucous verve. Sure, filmmakers Barak Goodman (“Oklahoma City”) and co-director Jamila Ephron (“Far from the Tree”) are playing on the title, and the film’s about the same event, but surely they can’t be trying to outdo Michael Wadleigh and his talented crew – including a very young Martin Scorsese as an editor?

The project put together for PBS for the music festival’s 50th anniversary is a nice, light reminder of what was – a love-in postcard, if you will – and does an adequate job of capturing the political turmoil and spirit of the moment.But if you’re coming to “Three Days that Defined a Generation” for the music, you’ll likely be disappointed. Wadleigh’s doc (and I need to stop mentioning it, but it’s impossible not to) captured Jimi, The Who, Janice, Santana, the Airplane and Joe Cocker in all their sweaty, electric grandeur; “Three Days That Defined a Generation” gives you 30-second metes that look like shortened outtakes of the same footage. If that doesn’t drive you to Wadleigh’s baby, you’re not interested in these legendary acts, performances or the historical significance of the ambitious concert and should stop reading this right now and go get a ticket for “Godzilla.”

One angle that “Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes that gives some fresh perspective is dialing back to three years earlier as Woodstock co-founders John Roberts and Joel Makower borrow money from the Polident fortune to get the venture off the ground. Then there’s the quest for space. Folks from Woodstock and other neighboring townships wanted little to do with a horde of rebellious youth and hippies, but diehard GOP dairy farmer Max Yasgur stepped in and served up his vast fields, and it was on. No one knew how big it would be (a half-million people) or the logistical miscues for hosting that many people in a podunk north of New York City that included getting sets, security and food up and running. The most affecting moment comes when Yasgur addresses the sea of youth from the stage.

Most of it is in that other doc too. Goodman and Ephron do get testimony from attendees, staffers and a few of the performers, including Richie Havens, Joan Baez and Cocker. Most of it’s fine but lacking the fiery energy of the moment. The affect is mostly flat; it’s a real non-starter when someone says The Who or Jimi was “good” – that’s like what, a C or a B-minus? And you don’t have more than a few chords to see that were nothing short of explosive.

Still, “Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes us there. It’s a rock-doc by definition, but more a pat historical rewind. It’s not possible to top Wadleigh’s masterpiece, one of the five greatest rock docs of all time (with “Stop Making Sense,” the Scorsese-directed “Last Waltz,” “Gimme” and “Dig!”). You feel imbedded. It’s more than three hours long, and you never want it to end. They were stardust, it was golden … and “Three Days That Defined a Generation” does little more than remind us about Yasgur‘s garden once upon a time.

A Kendall Square screening Friday includes Susan Bellows, a senior producer for PBS’ “American Experience” and two people who were at Woodstock: Bill Hanley, a festival audio engineer, and Jon Jaboolian, a “Woodstock veteran.”

The Complete Howard Hawks

15 Jun

‘Complete Howard Hawks’ at Film Archive celebrates director who could do anything

John Wayne and Angie Dickinson talk with Howard Hawks on the set of “Rio Bravo” in 1959.

Howard Hawks may be the greatest American filmmaker you never really think about. His name should be right up there in the conversation with Coppola, Chaplin, Scorsese, Tarantino, Ford and Welles, but rarely is. His output – dozens of films, most during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s Golden Era of Hollywood – is an astounding list, filled with iconic stars, yet Hawks never won an Oscar and was nominated only once as director, for “Sergeant York” (1941). Beginning Friday, the Harvard Film Archive will commemorate Hawks’ incredible career with “The Complete Howard Hawks.” The slate of 40 films will be exhibited throughout the summer, concluding Aug. 30 with “Monkey Business” (1952).

The classics include “Red River” (1948, screening Aug. 4 and 11), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953, June 15 and 23), “Bringing Up Baby” (1938, June 15-16) and “The Big Sleep” (1946, June 29-30), peppered with Hollywood A-listers such as James Cagney, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and even a young James Caan. “Sergeant York” screens Aug. 12.

Hawks had a pretty rich life. He grew up in a family that possessed a small industrial fortune, attended Phillips Exeter Academy and earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell. His interest in film came when his family transplanted from the Midwest to Pasadena, California. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force during World War I and some dabbling as a gambler and race car driver, Hawks fell in with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Douglas Fairbanks. Hawks made several silent films in the 1920s, including the hedonistic “A Girl in Every Port” (1928, July 8), the Arabian-Parisian romance “Fazil” (1928, July 22) – both to be screened with a live accompaniment by Robert Humphreville – and his debut about a woman coming to terms with her sudden blindness, “The Road to Glory” (1926, not on the calendar and not to be confused with the 1936 war movie of the same title by Hawks that plays Aug. 16).

Many of Hawks’ works mirrored his life. He made several war films with a focus on aviation, including “Today We Live” (1933, Aug. 24), “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939, June 14 and 16), “Dawn Patrol” (1930, July 13 and 28) and the chaotic post-Pearl Harbor bombing epic, “Air Force” (1943, July 14 and 21), as well car racing dramas such as “The Crowd Roars” (1932, Aug. 19) starring Cagney and “Red Line 7000” (1965, Aug. 23).

Hawks’ diverse, genre-spanning slate included crime dramas (“Scarface,” 1932, June 29 and July 7), noir (“The Big Sleep”), romantic comedies (“His Girl Friday,” 1940, June 24 and Aug. 30), westerns (“Rio Bravo,” 1959, July 26 and Aug. 10) where he was often competing for audience share against friend John Ford, and a foray into science fiction (“The Thing From Another World,” 1951, July 13 and 21, from the same source material as John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror film “The Thing”). 

Personal favorites include the adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s pulp noir “The Big Sleep” which boasts a screenwriting credit from Willam Faulkner, “Bringing Up Baby,” which I feel is the greatest rom-com of all time – but, then again, I wanted to be a paleontologist growing up – and “Scarface,” with Paul Muni setting the standard for classic bad guy performances. Then there’s the classic showdown “High Noon,” which paired Gary Cooper (one of Hawks’ two longtime collaborators, the other being Cary Grant) as the sheriff with an “X” on his back and Grace Kelly, and the grim and dark “Rio Bravo,” which would become the basis for another Carpenter film, the 1976 urban crime thriller, “Assault on Precinct 13.” Angling back toward the light is the newsroom romp “His Girl Friday.” Perhaps one reason Hawks is left out when it comes to talking greats is his appetite for a smorgasbord of subjects and his quietly competent compositions – for better or worse, you don’t feel the filmmaker in there trying to make a splash or leave his signature, as you do with many star directors. Hawks’ films have always been about narrative and character and letting the combination make the magic that pulls in the audience. It’s something he did repeatedly. 

“The Complete” series at the HFA was the brainchild of programmer David Pendleton, who sadly passed in 2017. Previous series have focused on Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. 

Films and times, tickets and other information are on the HFA website.

 

American Woman

14 Jun

 

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Can you imagine being a grandparent at age 36? In this dark, cloistered drama, we meet Debra (Sienna Miller), who had a daughter at age 16 who did the same thing at the same age. When we first catch up with Debra, she’s working as a waitress and sleeping with a married man who’s pretty much paying for her time. It ain’t pretty, but in her working-class neighborhood it feels like part of the American way.

The film spans 10 years. During it all, Deb’s older sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) is across the street, disapproving of her sib’s lifestyle but giving out unconditional love and support.Not far away is their newly widowed mother (a dignified Amy Madigan) who, while compassionate and reflective, also harbors reservations. In short, we get three generations of women with the youngest, Bridget (Sky Ferreira, “Baby Driver”), rebellious and not all that great of a mom, often hitting the party scene and dumping her neonate, Jesse, on Deb. Funny how history repeats itself. The toddler’s fate seems sealed, but Deb holds it together as much as she can, clearly doing better than she did with Bridget. Then Bridget disappears, and the film shifts.

That abrupt changeup draws in the audience, going unpredictable places fast. Did the boy’s father Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), himself still a kid, have something to do with it? Is Bridget alive or dead? The not knowing almost literally kills Deb, but also forces her to be the mother to Jesse she wasn’t with Bridget. When we leap forward in time, Deb has changed and has a decent man in her life (Aaron Paul, from “Breaking Bad,” feeling a bit miscast), but the Bridget mystery remains, as does the fraught weight hanging on Deb. The film, directed by Jake Scott (Ridley’s boy), revolves around tropes about family and watching each other’s backs despite some wildly poor life choices. The script by Brad Ingelsby has Lifetime network written all over it as it ambles awkwardly out of the gate. Much is asked of Miller to hold it all together, and she responds with a gritty, emotionally deep performance. The rest of the cast is up to the task too, especially Will Sasso as Katherine’s protective husband (and perhaps the only decent man in the film), who saves Deb from more than one unsavory situation.

Digging around in the trivia trash heap, the film was originally called “The Burning Woman” and Ann Hathaway was set to star. (Hard to imagine her pulling this off any better than Miller, capable as she is.) There’s no question the film could have used a better title: Many will associate this with the indelible 1970 song by The Guess Who – not bad company, mind you, but also no way to distinguish yourself. “American Women” might have made more sense. Without Miller bringing the burning misery of uncertainty to the fore, “American Woman” would be just another generic American drama with a dusting of grit and woe.

Late Night

14 Jun

‘Late Night’: Writers’ room full of white guys just isn’t working, but now Mindy Kaling is

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For a wispy-light, sitcom-ish comedy with some dark edges, “Late Night” covers a lot while getting guffaws and even some well-earned, teary-eyed moments. Lurking in the wings are the specter of Trump and #MeToo; more upfront are issues of white privilege, diversity hiring, ageism and sex scandals as “Late Night” takes us into the drama unfurling behind the scenes of late night TV.

The film benefits from an agile script by locally reared Mindy Kaling (“The Office” and “The Mindy Project”), no stranger to issues of race or trying to hold a show together as a woman. The other galvanizing infinity stone here – and there are “Avengers” jokes, I promise – is the chemistry between Kaling as a chemical plant engineer turned comedy writer and Emma Thompson as the notorious queen of mean of late night TV. Her Katherine Newbury, the lone female face of late night, is both menacing and engrossing, something of an improbable hodgepodge of Johnny Carson, Anna Wintour and Leona Helmsley. Ever in glamorous pantsuits and sporting a frosty cropped do, Katherine’s held her spot for decades, but recent years of poor ratings from her shunning of millennials, social issues and social media has the brass (Amy Ryan, great in small strokes as a “Network”-esque TV exec) considering a replacement. It doesn’t help that the show’s phalanx of writers are all white men, working obsequiously within the confines of their star’s narrow construct.

One such writer with a second child on the way asks for a raise and is fired – Katherine, while married (John Lithgow gives a nuanced and compassionate performance as her husband) does not have children, having poured herself into her show, and demands the same devotion from her staff. Desperate, and against her better instincts (she leans toward “national treasures” such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, while Jimmy Fallon slays her in the ratings by washing a sheepdog with “Avengers” star Robert Downey Jr.), Katherine books a YouTube sensation – a sassy female comedian whose MO is to sniff her dog’s butt. “What could go wrong?” The next move is to bring in a woman of color. Enter Molly (Kaling), who wins a corporate essay contest. Turns out the parent company that owns the chemical plant also owns the network (shades of GE and NBC). Yup, it’s that kind of light “dreams come true” fantasy, totally forgivable considering the smartly portrayed friction that ensues.

The delivery of “Late Night” overall is fairly predictable, with audience-cued reactions. Thompson is riveting throughout, and sure to be in this year’s Oscars conversations; she holds it all together, especially when her Katherine moves beyond commanding and demanding for a few vulnerable moments. Kaling’s Molly rides along in her wake, and together the two conjure up something akin to what Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep did in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006). Together they make “Late Night” a sweet, serviceable fairy tale with a crisp acrid bite.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

14 Jun

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’: Occupying family home doesn’t get it back

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Given efforts to address the widening socioeconomic chasm in Cambridge and matters of diversity and affordable housing, there might not be a more apt fable to heed than that of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” – even if that city’s affordability and economic divide, with its long list of tech startups and horde of nouveau millennials, far outpaces ours. This Spike Lee-sque work about a forlorn young man looking to return to the stately family home where he grew up hits all the right (dis)chords, though. The house, in what was once known as the “Harlem of the West” (in the Fillmore District) is now a tony enclave perched quaintly atop a San Fran hill, streetcar stop and all, that looks right off the Travel Channel. The specter of gentrification is in every frame of this Sundance-winning film, though never directly named.

So what does Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, can you dig the meta framing?) do to gain back the the periwinkle-gray Victorian manse? Well, he just shows up and starts cleaning, raking the yard and painting the windows sills – which doesn’t sit well with the current white owners, who themselves are in a financial pickle and forced to move out. That’s when Jimmie and his pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), who’ve been in a less desirable part of the city with Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover – again this week after “The Dead Don’t Die”!), decide to move in. None of that is on the up and up, which gives the film its teeth; the stakes climb even higher when the “witch hat house” goes on the market for a cool four mil. Jimmie, a caregiver at a retirement home, and Mont, who works in the local fish market, don’t have a chance in hell of buying it.

The resolution is ultimately beside the point. It’s more about the subtle portrayal of race, the impact of gentrification and the grim prospects for young men of color who have either unwisely stepped outside the law or been passed over by the system. “Blindspotting”(2018) moved in similar waves, but not quite as engrossingly or with such inventive nuance. The film, directed by Joe Talbot (who is white) and conceived by he and Fails, swings for the fences, evoking at points Godard’s “Weekend” and Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and succeeds for the most part, even if the premise feels razor thin, contrived and unlikely.The gathering of tough lads who sit outside Mont’s grandfather’s house and drop the N-word more than the article “the” (if it’s ever even used) become a captivating Greek chorus (one’s a dead drop-in for Radio Raheem) and a reality check on the American dream, not to mention a harsh reminder of the irrational suddenness of street violence and the improbability of making it off the street once you’re there.

Fails–the character, not the actor–is saddled with a lot: mom and dad are absent (due to circumstances it’s hard to have complete empathy for) but remain present in the corners, framed as impactful forces. He’s also spent time in juvie. But somehow his mission and character profile, while palpable and moving, isn’t as intriguing as Mont’s, a complex, multilevel eccentric, an aspiring intellect in tweed, a younger, emotive David Allen Grier. It’s a mind-blowing performance that pretty much makes the film – or I should say, holds us in place. Some of the dreamlike, absurdist scenes orchestrated by Talbot are a wonder to drink in. Boots Riley went this way with “Sorry to Bother You” (2018, also starring Glover as the golden “white voiced” black salesman), and while not every one of that film’s surrealist experiments landed, the sum was visceral and far-reaching in ways far beyond that of a more conventional approach. Same can be said here, about a film whose title says it all. A title change to “Cambridge” would work just as well.

The Dead Don’t Die

14 Jun

‘The Dead Don’t Die’: Jarmusch wins with cast but loses a battle of wits against zombie genre

 

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After the subtly dark vampire satire “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), the prospect of witty, deadpan filmmaker Jim Jarmusch taking a shot at the zombie apocalypse seemed as plump and juicy as a pinned motorist under a flipped car struggling to get free before a lumbering herd of ravenous undead arrives. Truth be told, Jarmusch’s droll, genre-deconstructing zom-edy could have used a bit more meat on its hollow bones. As is, it reanimates plenty from George Romero’s canon of shambling-undead work, starting with the small-town setting of his seminal 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead,” a rural Pennsylvania podunk an hour or so from Pittsburgh. To give “The Dead Don’t Die” a bit of a nod-and-wink edge, Jarmusch also kicks down the fourth wall from time to time – mostly to humorous effect, but not always.

The major wins here come in a wide-ranging cast that includes Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Danny Glover and Steve Buscemi in small, bloody bits: Pop as a punked-out zombie and Buscemi as a cantankerous Trump-esque supporter wearing a “Make America White Again” red hat snarling about invaders trespassing on his farm as he blasts apart undead heads with a shotgun.

The world-ending mayhem centers more around a should-have-been-retired gent by the name of Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray – I’m guessing the movie actor reference is intended), the sheriff of Centerville (pop. less than 800 at the start of the film, maybe more at the end if you add in the reanimated) and his deputies Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny). Even before the first innards are strewn about Centerville’s only diner Ronnie keeps remarking that the culprit is zombies, with the added refrain that “It’s not going to end well.” When pressed on how he’s so certain, Ronnie replies casually that he’s read the script. Yup, it’s that kind of flick. You may balk or embrace it. No matter. This is a Jarmusch film, and the dialogue is chewy and rich even in the gut-masticating jaws of death.

Why the dead get up and begin to munch on the living has something to do with polar fracking tossing the earth off its axis and a “fake news” coverup by big energy and complacent cable news stations – imagine that? As the hordes of decaying beloved erupt from their subterranean nests in a threat far more titillating than the reality, the film begins to stumble and list like one of its ghouls. Thankfully Tilda Swinton whooshes in as a newly transplanted mortician with a weird way of speaking (Scottish and proper) and means of making exact 90-degree angles when walking. She’s also in the elite class of Uma Thurman’s bride from the “Kill Bill” movies and Michonne from “The Walking Dead” when it comes to slicing and dicing with a samurai sword. Her elven embalmer has plenty of fun beheading the undead (there’s no gore, just black, dusty wisps), as do we with her, and then in the flash of her blade or an otherworldly light she’s taken from us, and the film’s soul is too.

Amid the disjointed olio there’s some nifty, witty play about kids of color in a detention facility getting the last laugh and the film’s titular theme song by a Johnny Cash-sounding Sturgill Simpson working its way into the plot, not to mention zombies clinging to old habits such as Wi-Fi, coffee and smartphones – though Jarmusch overuses the commercialism message from Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” as he runs out of ideas on where to go. Then things jump the headstone, mostly in the uninspired denouement, and there’s the scene when Ronnie drinks in the vision of a comely hipster from out of town (Selena Gomez) and remarks to Cliff that he knows she’s part Mexican because he has an affinity for Mexicans.It’s so random and, given politics these days, odd – it has no obvious payoff.

Shamble on, you silly ghouls.

Liam’s Lunches of Love

7 Jun

Mission of feeding homeless Lunches of Love leads Liam Hannon, 12, to GoFundMe fame

 

Liam Hannon, 12, begins a weekly food distribution in April to the needy in Carl Barron Plaza in Central Square. (Photo: Scott Hannon)

This week, 12-year-old Liam Hannon speaks before a worldwide gathering of top brass from GoFundMe, the for-profit crowdsourcing platform that hosts charitable causes and promotes do-gooders. Liam, a Central Square resident who’s become something of a celebrity for providing free lunches to the hungry and homeless each weekend, will be one of the “young heroes” attending the internal conference in San Diego to share his mission, success and vision – and beyond his years, boy, does the kid has vision.

A sixth-grader at the Putnam Avenue Upper School who is quiet and introspective beyond his years, Liam has served more than 4,000 free lunches to the hungry in the three years since launching Liam’s Lunches of Love. Inspired by his father Scott’s journey to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to protest a pipeline being sent though Native American lands, he started the venture with just 20 lunches packed into a small wagon. “I was nervous,” Liam said.“I didn’t have to be nervous, because they were thankful.” 

Scott and Liam Hannon prepare sandwiches for distribution in August 2017. (Photo courtesy of Scott Hannon)

Liam’s Lunches launched with PB&Js in hand-decorated bags; as word of the mission spread and the volume of lunches delivered grew, kids from across the country joined in by sending in hand-decorated bags to help the cause.

Almost every Sunday, Liam and Scott Hannon spend two hours preparing and packaging the meals before setting out to Central Square’s Carl Barron Plaza and, subject to time and logistics, making their way up to the Cambridge Common. “Never,” said Scott Hannon of those they serve, “has any of them ever asked us for money. Never.” The Hannons describe the project as being “judgment free.”

Liam’s Lunches of Love used a smaller cart upon starting in 2017. (Photo: Scott Hannon)

The lunches evolved into more easily mass-produced hot meals such as mac and cheese, soups and pasta. Because the cost of the lunches runs over $200 per weekly offering, Liam and his dad eventually launched a GoFundMe campaign. One of the early requests was for “a bigger wagon,” which pulled in a few hundred dollars. But awareness of Liam’s mission grew – Liam, who shuns the spotlight, has become the subject of media attention, including an award presented to him by actor John C. Reilly and Anderson Cooper nationally on CNN as well as local TV blurbs, a featured spot on a GoFundMe podcast and an appearance at a Celtics game – and the purse for Liam’s Lunches of Love skyrocketed to several tens of thousands of dollars.

A bit of help comes from GoFundMe itself, a company representative said. “We do this on a regular basis as part of our internal GivesBack program where every week, employees nominate a GoFundMe campaign that touches their heart, and if selected, a donation is made to that campaign,” the spokesperson said.

“Any time we get the opportunity to meet these extraordinary people in person, we not only welcome it, but look forward to it. These are the people who make all of us excited to come to work each and every day,” the spokesperson said. “We’re excited that one of our GoFundMe Kid Heroes will be spending time with our employees as we bring our GivesBack program to life.”

Asked about his classmates and the exposure he has received, Liam said, “Some of them help out, but most don’t really know about it. I don’t really talk about it.”

Liam sees his project growing even more. To that end, one goal he’s shooting for is the ultimate bigger wagon: a food truck. The father and son imagine free meals for the needy, quality food for pay for those who have means and jobs for those who need them.  “I want to stick with the model of going to them,” Liam said.