Archive | October, 2019

Cambridge goes to 20 mph

30 Oct

Nearly four-fifths of city’s streets turn 20 mph with installation of 660 signs come November

 

Speed limit signs for 25 mph will become more rare in Cambridge this fall, as nearly 80 percent of streets fall to a 20 mph limit. (Photo: Acquaforte via Pixabay)

Beginning in November, the city will begin to reduce speed limits on nearly 80 percent of streets in Cambridge to 20 mph from the statewide 25 mph. The move comes as part of the city’s commitment to its Vision Zero strategy to reduce road deaths.

If a 5 mph reduction seems insignificant, a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that pedestrians are almost half as likely to be killed or seriously injured if struck by a car traveling 25 mph versus a car traveling 30 mph.

The city enacted the measure in January when looking to expand areas designated as “safety zones,” which had been reserved primarily for roads passing by schools and senior centers. The rollout will see 660 “Safety Zone” signs erected starting in East Cambridge and spreading west over a loose three-month period. The map will be updated to reflect progress as the project moves along.

“We’ve heard concerns about speeding from people throughout the Cambridge community,” said Joseph Barr, director of the city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department. “Reducing the speed limit is an important step toward addressing those concerns. This change will also inform the way that we design our streets and help support our ongoing traffic calming efforts.”

Nate Fillmore, of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, speaks about road safety to the City Council in February 2018. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Bicyclists, who have testified to feeling at risk from sharing roads with speeding cars, embraced the announcement. “Changing to the lower speed limit is critical,” said Steve Bercu, a Cambridge resident and member of the board of directors of the Boston Bicyclist Union, “in that it impacts the design speed of all projects going forward.” Nate Fillmore, of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, was more direct on the matter of design: “This change needs to be followed up on with citywide changes to the built environment that reflect the new speed, including narrower lanes, raised crosswalks and protected bicycle lanes on major streets wherever possible.”

One city councillor backing the initiative, Quinton Zondervan, hailed the move. “This will make our city much safer for vulnerable road users, allowing more people to walk and bike, leading to less pollution and a healthier community,” Zondervan said.

Addressing concerns of residents discussed on area listservs, vice mayor Jan Devereux added, “Of course, we will need enforcement to put teeth into this desire to slow down drivers – the lack of speed enforcement is another complaint I hear often. Automated enforcement by camera could help, and the council is on record in support of [a bill] pending on Beacon Hill.” Matters of privacy have always been a concern with camera use enforcement, though it’s the primary mechanism in place for cars without toll transponders on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The big difference between the reduction to 25 mph from 30 mph made optional statewide a few years ago and this city reduction to 20 mph is that signs are needed to mark the deviation from the statewide default.

Enforcement, the city said, would be data driven as it always has been. “When in doubt, go 20 mph,” said the communication from the city.

Jojo Rabbit

26 Oct

‘Jojo Rabbit’: Hitler Youth’s imaginary friend, true enemy battle for territory in his affections

 

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“Jojo Rabbit” is something you’re not likely prepared to see – and that’s a good thing. The best way I can lay it down: It’s as if Wes Anderson did Hitler. That’s accurate but not entirely fair, because it’s written and directed by by Taika Waititi, a creative stylist in his own right with the vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) and the grand uber-hero crackup, “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) – probably the only Marvel film Scorsese and Coppola might tolerate – to his credits. “Jojo Rabbit” takes place in Germany on the eve of major turns at the end of the war, and Hitler, played with grand, goofy gaiety and menace by Waititi himself, factors large into the dark satire about a 10-year-old boy coming of age during complicated times (to put it mildly).

We catch up with Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he heads off to a Hitler Youth boot camp for a weekend. He’s a proud loyalist and, because dad’s gone missing, his male surrogate is the führer himself. Talk about an unholy and unhealthy imaginary friend, but Waititi, who is half Maori and half Jewish, plays the part with a deft, humorous touch, giving Hitler a warm, avuncular sheen while not letting him off the hook for, well, everything.

The leporine tag of the title comes from that boot camp, where the undersized Jojo botches a test of manhood and is tagged a “scared little rabbit.” The best part about the camp is that we get Sam Rockwell as a snarky, demoted officer running things and Rebel Wilson as his chortling assistant – “Get your things together, kids, it’s time to burn some books!” Back at home, Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t quite share her son’s all-things-Aryan zeal. Then there’s that someone hiding in the walls: Turns out mom and dad are anti-Nazi propagandists, and the older girl living in a secret compartment upstairs is Jewish, and being sheltered by mom. Jojo discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) and begins to study her (keeping a science journal detailing “the Jewish beast,” which, while shocking and telling, also becomes a major turning point in the film). As the interviews progress, a friendship begins to take seed. They never let Rosie know that Jojo knows, but in passing Jojo tells his pal Yorki (Archie Yates, whose round-faced exuberance makes him an infectious scene stealer) he’s “captured one,” and even Rockwell’s officer. But no one really believes him or cares, as the Third Reich has begun to crumble.

Beyond the wide-eyed  transformation of its young protagonist, the heart and humanity of “Jojo Rabbit” radiates through its women. Since she’s donned Lycra in the Marvel Universe and teamed up for freaky times with Luc Besson (“Lucy”), filmgoers might have forgotten ScarJo’s emotive resonate from past immersions into nuanced roles of cold alien bait (“Under the Skin”) or a dislocated American in Japan (“Lost in Translation”). She carries the part of a conflicted mother fully. You know her Rosie detests sending her son off to boot camp, but does so not only because of the bigger forces at play, but because she’s an adoring mother trying to support her progeny as best she can. McKenzie, who gave such a mature and central performance in the off-the-grid drama “Leave No Trace” (2017), ups her stock here. Her character’s somber reflectiveness and innate compassion go a long way in disarming Jojo’s regime-first reactiveness. The scenes of the two communicating indirectly while connecting on a personal level build subtly and effectively, offsetting the mad world outside.

I’m not sure if there’s such adroit, slapstick skewering in “Caging Skies,” the book by Christin Leunens on which the film is based, but in Waititi’s World War II universe, shouts of “Heil Hitler” – initially shocking – ultimately become something of a comic refrain, like, say, in a Mel Brooks movie, and Rockwell, Wilson and Waititi play their deplorables with over-the-top, nod-and-wink perfection. The material is equal parts grim and hysterical (especially the debate over which of the Allied forces are worse to humans and dogs – Americans, Russians or the British), and folk will likely seize on comparisons with “The Death of Stalin” (2017) due to the era, comedic style and subject. It’s only natural, but “Jojo Rabbit” delivers a palpable human story that touches as we laugh and the world around explodes. And somehow David Bowie and the Beatles find their way in.

Interview with Robert Eggers

26 Oct

Remote location, relentless weather had effect on ‘Lighthouse’ filming, not just on characters

Robert Eggers reveals at least one secret behind his stormy new movie

Robert Pattinson and Willem DaFoe in Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse,” playing now at Davis Square’s Somerville Theatre.

Don’t spend too much time looking for answers about the meaning of “The Lighthouse,” Robert Eggers’ sophomore film, from Eggers himself.

Eggers, interviewed on a swing through town before “The Lighthouse” began screening Thursday at Davis Square’s Somerville Theatre, said he didn’t set out with a specific theme or statement, but “wanted to raise more questions than provide answers.”

The character study of two clashing personalities (Willem DaFoe and Robert Pattinson) tending to a New England beacon far offshore during the late 1800s is in throwback black and white, hard to define – it’s not really arthouse horror or a psychodrama, but a dabble of both and then some – and hits some pretty dark depths. It might not have been made had Eggers not caught Hollywood’s eye with his 2015 Calvinist colonial beguiler “The Witch,” which made a splash at Sundance and won him the Directing Award.

Robert Eggers. (Photo: Tom Meek)

“I had to choose very carefully,” Eggers said of his follow-up, invoking the notoriously fickle nature of the industry. Eggers, intentionally vague, mentioned a flirtation with a bigger project that got made by another filmmaker while “The Lighthouse” came to fruition from a script he and his brother Max had worked on years earlier, inspired by an old Welsh poem and the works of maritime penners of the era such as Melville. 

The film, with the provocation, tricks of the light and a dash of the outré now identified as part of Eggers’ signature style, landed two very big fish as its stars with surprising ease. “I didn’t think ‘The Witch’ would find much of an audience, [but] one of its fans was Willem Dafoe, who contacted me and asked me out for lunch – which was like ‘Wow,’ because he was a huge hero of mine. And Robert Pattinson had similarly been in contact with me,” Eggers said. “When they greenlit ‘The Lighthouse,’ I thought, who else?”

Of his journey into film, New Hampshire native Eggers has it down pat: “My dad was a Shakespeare professor at UNH, my mom had a kids’ theater company and I got bad grades – so the only college I got into was an acting school in New York.” Afterward, Eggers joined a theater troupe, where set design became his forte and a skill that ultimately elevated him in the theater and filmmaking industries. Those roots are on display impressively in the “The Lighthouse”; the structure of the title looks like an authentic relic but was built from the ground up for the film. “Anyone who could hold a hammer in Nova Scotia helped out, because we didn’t have a lot of time,” he said.

Because much of the film takes place during a relentless nor’easter that drives the action, that set was erected on Cape Forchu, a rocky peninsula on the southern tip of Nova Scotia that Eggers calls a “the most punishing location we could find that had good road access.” 

“It really delivered, but I had never been so cold in my life. I mean, I had experienced colder weather, but the gale force winds on that rock in the North Atlantic were just so relentless, and there’s no respite with all the saltwater spray coming at you,” Eggers said. Many of the scenes are in driving rain – mostly natural, though sometimes driven by a fan and only occasionally helped by a firehose. The short time on location, weather and physical demands of filming meant there was little time for relaxation.

Aside from Dafoe and Pattinson, who give performances worthy of award consideration, the other big star of the film is a clamorous seagull who menaces Pattinson’s newbie with all the brio of the bullish goat Black Phillip in “The Witch.”

“Actually it was three trained seagulls,” Eggers said. “They’re rescue birds, and they’re so smart and clever.” For the scene where the seagull files up to a window and pecks it three times, Eggers thought he was going to have to cut the elements together and maybe use CGI, but the bird did what was in the director’s head on the first take. 

Next up for Eggers is “The Northman,” a 10th century viking revenge story staring Nicole Kidman, her “Big Little Lies” costar Alexander Skarsgård, Dafoe and Anna Taylor-Joy (the star of “The Witch”). I had to ask Eggers how he became so obsessed with off-the-grid period pieces. “It’s what rings my bell,” he said. “I prefer to understand where we are and where we are going by exploring where we came from.”

Parasite

18 Oct

‘Parasite’: What’s rising from the basement? Another squad eager to fight in the class war

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Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who plumbed issues of economic disparity in “The Host” (2006) and “Snowpiercer” (2013), is back at it in “Parasite,” where we meet the haves and have-nots – the Parks and the Kims – and the shit starts flying.

We catch up with the Kims first, living in a shabby basement apartment where they fold pizza boxes for a buck and scam Wi-Fi from those above. They live hand to mouth until the enterprising daughter of the clan, Ki-jung (So-dam Park, sassy and excellent) lands a job as an art therapy tutor to the Parks’ young, eccentric (and demanding) son, who was traumatized in first grade by something emerging from the lowest level of the Parks’ sleekly palatial, very Scandinavian home. A host of opportunities emerge. Ki-taek’s older brother is ensconced tutoring the Park’s daughter. The mother supplants the Parks’ longtime housekeeper. And what if the patriarch of the Kims could get a job as the Parks’ driver? Neat idea, but they already have a chauffeur. The resolution is a pair of soiled panties left in the back of the Benz for Madame Park, quite OCD and repressed, to get her gloved mitts on.

The Parks, for all their wealth and stature, are 120 percent unaware that their new battery of employees know each other. It’s a happy coexistence for a good while; then the Parks go away for a long weekend and the Kims move in and make the place their own, emptying the liquor cabinets and pretty much turning the sparkling, spartan palace into a squatter’s paradise. It’s also when that something in the basement rears its head and the movie goes from a tense 5 to a frenetic 11.

Bong’s “Snowpiercer,” famously nearly ruined by disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, was about class stratification – those in the cramped dingy rear of the post eco-apocalyptic train eating soylent-ish green squares until they rise up and storm the gilded front, where champagne and sushi are fed to the 1 percent. Here, as with Jordan Peele in this year’s “Us,” Bong once again lets his message bubble up steadily yet subtly, ever pointed and tugging at the corner of the frame.

The culmination is as shocking, provocative and thoroughly entertaining (and resonant) as in “The Host,” which stormed the minds and hearts of critics and filmgoers the way the mutant beast did the urban landscape along the Han River. Beyond the impressive efforts of the ensemble cast, not enough can be said of the superbly composed framing by Kyung-pyo Hong (“Snowpiercer” and “Burning”), especially the wide shots of dingy urban alleyways, littered with refuse and Escher-like ascents. It’s a complete effort all around, and the kind of follow-up folks were hungry for after “The Host.” By returning to familiar themes and (untraditional) family values, Bong has again latched on to the collective mindset with a deft touch of the outré.

The Lighthouse

18 Oct

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“The Lighthouse” is a senses-riveting immersion, aurally awash in the sonorous sounds of the sea, the pelt of torrential rain and the soul-shaking roar of the title structure’s bullhorn. It’s also brilliantly composed in austere black and white, in a retro-cropped format (practically, a neat square at 1.19:1) by Jarin Blaschke, who also shot director Robert Eggers’ debut, “The Witch” in 2015. “Roma,” another bold black and white gamble, walked off with the Academy’s best achievement in cinematography last year – and rightly so – but I must say, much of what Blaschke and Eggers conjure up here is more vital to their film’s core and registers an overall surpassing grade. Hard to imagine, but yes, it’s that stunning.

The narrative the ambience hangs from isn’t quite as sure, but what’s to worry when you have Willem DaFoe and Robert Pattinson? The setup, based on writings by Melville and sea-obsessed others of the era, has two men keeping the flame on a remote isle somewhere far off the New England coast. It’s circa 1890, so there are no cell towers; there’s also no Morse code from the island should something go wrong. The pair are dropped off on the rock for a four-week shift. Dafoe’s Thomas is a salty old tar, Pattinson’s wide-eyed Ephraim the newbie in his charge. The order of things gets laid out early on: Thomas does the all the attending to light, which is kept under tight lock and key, as well as the cooking, while Ephraim pretty much does the backbreaking rest – scrubbing the floors, hauling heavy loads of coal across jagged rock outcroppings, emptying the piss pots and painting the structure from a rickety harness that would make any OSHA official cringe. 

Thomas proves to be an Ahab-like taskmaster, though just what his white whale is never surfaces. The first rub between the mates comes over the consumption of booze (Ephraim won’t partake) and later the quality of those scrubbed floors. What Eggers begins to simmer here (as he did in “The Witch”) is a slow descent into madness as things fall apart, with faint hints of perhaps something bigger and more divine at play – fog-impaired siren sightings, booze-addled images of sensually writhing tentacles and even the incarnation of Neptune himself. The existential horror story gets triggered by a vociferant gull with all the brio and menace of the devil-eyed goat Black Phillip in “The Witch,” and the arrival of a nor’easter that could hold up their relief by weeks, if not months. The stranding ultimately becomes an opportunity for the actors to really dig in and Act – and boy do they, as alcohol, sexual tension and stormwater rain down upon the splintering shingles of their characters’ relationship with the mystery of the lighthouse tower and Thomas’ journal (also conspicuously under lock and key) ever pulling at Ephraim.

The chemistry between the two, well at the top of their games, couldn’t be any more perfect, and it’s a pretty physically taxing slog, to boot. Pattinson, so good in such offbeat, gritty ditties as “Good Time” (2017) and “High Life” this year, pours himself into the part, never flinching as torrents of wind-driven rain or fecal matter pelt his face. But this is Dafoe’s flick, his mercurial changeups and old sea dog affect behind a beard so thick and mangy it rivals that of Edmond O’Brien’s old coot in “The Wild Bunch” (1969), sells and seals both the authentic air of the period and the reality-warping mayhem. 

The film’s finest moment, echoing the “Indianapolis” scene in “Jaws” (1974), has the marooned liquored up and singing and dancing gaily. In the cloistered quarters, the choreography and execution are pure bravura. Of course there’s no shark to break the interlude, just the specter of loneliness, haunted pasts and the unmistakeable boundary of taboo. Other cinematic borrowings from “The Shining” (1981) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979) may raise a brow, but are otherwise unnecessary distractions. 

The other bright spot is the titular structure itself. The isle-perched beacon looks a legitimate relic, 150 years old, but truth be told, it was erected to house Eggers’ haunted hall of personal demons. There’s also some eye-grabbing visual effects with the use of white burning light and an eerie score by Mark Korven that deepens the whole, beguiling experience. Like Pattinson’s deep space cruiser en route to a black hole in Claire Denis’ “High Life,” “The Lighthouse” is less about liftoff or landing and more about the tormented sojourn.

Pain and Glory

16 Oct

 

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Reconnections abound in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, one of his most intimate and personal films in years. Given it’s about an aging movie director struggling with physical ailments and the last chapter of his life, “Pain and Glory” is clearly, deeply autobiographical and something of Almodóvar‘s “8½” (1963). The title embraces physical and emotional pain as well as reflection on past “glories” with the dim but beating prospect of perhaps one more to come.

Longtime Almodóvar collaborator (and alter ego) Antonio Banderas, looking quite Clooney-esque with a salt-n-pepper beard, plays Salvador Mallo, a cherished film director who lives alone in Madrid, hobbled by chronic disorders and lament. It’s painful to watch him get in and out of a cab. In a voiceover we get the tick list of afflictions: asthma, sciatica and tinnitus – and to illustrate the point, Almodóvar launches into animated anatomy lesson to let us know just how nasty a fused disc can be.

Salvador’s relief comes through a restoration re-release of one of his past glories (the film’s title “Sabor” translated is “Flavor” or “Taste”). The prospect has him track down the lead actor, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), from whom he’s been estranged for years over Alberto’s use of heroin on set – which is ironic, as during their reconnection Salvador starts using heroin to ease his emotional and physical pain, and ultimately gets hooked. With the big re-release looming, we flip back in time to a young Salvador (Asier Flores) and his mother, Jacinta (an elegant and graceful Penélope Cruz), living humbly in an alabaster “cave” apartment where, during the day, Salvador tutors an illiterate young man named Eduardo (a wide-eyed, handsome César Vicente) in exchange for tiling, painting and freshening up the dingy al fresco abode. Also in the present, there’s the specter of Salvador’s former lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a similarly majestic aging lion who now lives in Buenos Aires and has a female partner. Federico and Edmond, we learn, are the inspiration for much of Salvador’s work (though maternal themes run almost as deep in Almodóvar‘s works as LGBTQ and raw, sexual desire, i.e., “Volver” in 2006, “High Heels” in 1991 and “All About My Mother” in 1999).

Given the construct, it should come as no surprise that “Pain and Glory” is a deeply internal film rooted in melancholy and rue, and you feel the title’s emotional signifiers palpably. Banderas, so soulful and integral to the film, gives the performance of his career and should be rewarded for it come awards season.

Those looking for some of the outrageous graphic shock Almodóvar’s been known for (“Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” in 1989 or “The Skin I Live In” in 2011) may be somewhat disappointed – though there is a long, ogling penis-envy shot, which, while it makes sense in context, feels a tad off from the rest of the film. I’m not sure where the Spanish auteur goes from here; he faltered some with “I’m So Excited!” (2013) while trying to rekindle the raucous, ribald zing of past (and personal favorite) classics such as “Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom” (1980) and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988), but with “Pain and Glory” there’s a sense of coming full circle. All the ends connect – but not how you might expect. It feels like a warm and complete closing from a man in full.

Midnight Traveler

16 Oct

 

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Imagine if you had no home, no country and a bounty on your head. That’s the scenario facing filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his wife and two young daughters in “Midnight Traveler,” when the clock runs out on asylum requests in Tajikistan and they face deportation back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban put out a contract on Fazili’s life in 2015. It’s unclear what Fazili had done to raise the Taliban’s ire, but in Kabul he did operate a cafe that served men and women (generally not well received in strict Islamic communities that favor gender segregation); and as a filmmaker, he’s sure to have caught the eye of theocrats who enforce their rule with a sword and an AK-47.

The endgame for the Fazili family is Germany (which the film paints as the immigrant Eden of the EU), but it’s a long slog there and a harrowing one filled with peril and uncertainty. The journey begins with a brief reroute to Afghanistan, then there’s some rocky mountain passages with leaden backpacks, riotous gangs that target refugees in Bulgaria and the never knowing if your ride from one country to another will show up or skip off with the money. 

The whole ordeal’s captured on iPhones operated by Fazili and his wife. The overall tenor’s quite intimate, and the cameras continue to roll even during sudden upheavals and Kafka-esque political processes – and Fazili the filmmaker at times seems more focused on a shot than on a stumbling child. The scenes of the two girls just being kids without a care, when they occasionally have the time and safe space to relax, are wholly affecting, deepened by a preceding clip in which racial epithets rain down on those entering from elsewhere. It’s eye-popping too to realize as Fazili and family move west – toward Western civilization – just how uncivil and unaccepting some of these bastions of art and culture are. 

As a narrative device, the long haul is broken into time/location entries such as “Day 51: Ovcha Kupel Refugee Camp, Bulgaria.” “Diary of a Refugee” might have been a more apt title. No matter, “Midnight Traveler” registers a moving illumination of the inimical challenges faced by those forcibly dislocated from their homeland, adrift on foreign soil and at the mercy of others.

The Laundromat

10 Oct

‘The Laundromat’: We go through a spin cycle while Soderbergh cleans house on bad finance

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Steven Soderbergh’s films have always been stacked with panache and verve. Take the mod hipness of “Out of Sight” (1998) or the “Ocean’s” films, let alone bigger, more serious affairs such as “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic” – both made in 2000 and both striking Oscar gold – in which the filmmaker’s wry, slick sarcasm still manages to work its way up and out. That’s why taking in “The Laundromat” is somewhat disconcerting: It’s got style and sass for sure, but it’s someone else’s pen that Soderbergh’s wielding, most conspicuously that of Adam McKay, who inked quick irreverent, knee-jerk changeups into “The Big Short” (2015), the artfully outrageous dissection of the subprime housing collapse.

“The Laundromat” too is about a financial fissure in America, though it’s a more intimate and less grand affair than “The Big Short” and employs loosely bound segments (Secret 1, 2, 3 and so on) to bring you the not-so-great news. The first segment, “The Meek Are Screwed,” obviously caught my eye. The meek are mentioned relentlessly throughout the film, lemmings we should care deeply about no matter how many go over a cliff at the promise of financial security and greener pastures (the American Dream; nay, scheme). The first meek we meet are a retired couple, Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) and her husband, Joe (James Cromwell), who take a pleasure cruise across the placid waters of Lake George. There’s an accident, Joe doesn’t make it and Ellen, who thinks she’s going to buy a condo in the sky, drink mai tais and watch the sun rise, is in for a rude awakening. The insurer of Joe’s policy is a mailbox somewhere in Nevis with funnel after funnel to shell corporations elsewhere. It’s a maddening, endless web of paper that if put into boxing terms might be Ali’s infamous rope-a-dope – you can slug away all you want, but in the end you’re exhausted and primed for a knockout.

Ellen’s a slugger. And over the course of what amounts to a long, drawn-out bout, you begin to really admire her moxie. She starts with that mailbox, which belongs to a somber, cagey gent named Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), whose personal life proves nearly as dubious as his dealings. Ellen may be grasping at straws, but Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns follow the trail with the same diligence they tracked the source of a lethal pathogen in the pandemic thriller “Contagion” (2011). Along the path we get myriad digressions, be it a corrupt and extremely rich African ex-pat named Charles (Nonso Anozie) philandering poolside with his daughter’s college roommate, two naive Americans slugging tequila in the wrong Mexican cantina or the British businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) who tries to shake down a Chinese matriarch on her home turf – not a good strategy.  

It turns out all roads lead to Panama (yes, this is the saga of the infamous Panama Papers, that if not for Wikileaks and the subprime debacle might have been more boldly underscored in history books) and there we get the cherry duo of Ramón (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen (Gary Oldman), law partners at a firm that manages nearly 25,000 shell companies who provide the kind of aside insights that Margot Robbie did from a hot tub in “The Big Short.” The pair are dashing, charming, and you’re thrown into a trance every time they rationalize the state of the universe with a shrug and wry smile. Their smugness is intoxicating, but it’s hard to root for the shell gamers as they inflict pain and suffering upon the meek with their “just bending the rules” machinations. The charismatic actors forge devilish chemistry too, twirling around each other like Fred and Ginger; Oldman, who won an Oscar last year for playing Churchill, gets to take a German accent out for a spin. For the most, he handles the curves nicely, but in the pit he lays it on a bit thick.

As things come full cycle, Soderbergh and Burns suddenly seem to be at a loss. Perhaps they should have done more with Sharon Stone’s persnickety real estate agent in a clingy sequin dress, or David Schwimmer’s boat operator, royally screwed by big insurance. But no, as this “Laundromat” closes we get put through the ideological wringer as the fourth wall is kicked down for a dour dose of pedagogy that’s meant to incite. Unfortunately, all the lazy symbolism does is agitate and bleach out what had been a luridly piquant sojourn to Central America and other unsavory ports of global corruption.

First Love

4 Oct

‘First Love’: Boxer and dame are on the run through cartoonishly blood-slicked streets

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Takashi Miike, the Japanese auteur of such intimate torture ditties as “Audition” (1999) and “Ichi the Killer” (2001) and the Kurosawa-worthy swordplay of “13 Assassins” (2010), returns to his roots with “First Love,” which, while lacking the intimacy of his other works, delivers the anticipated cringe-worthy beatdowns and unfolds in a freer and more conventional fashion. Taking place almost exclusively at night, amid the seedier side of a neon-bathed cityscape, “First Love” borrows some from Tarantino’s gangster dramas as it centers around a taciturn boxer (Masataka Kubota) and a young woman haunted by ghosts and forced into prostitution (Sakurako Konishi), thrown together and sucked into a criminal underbelly of yakuza heavies, drug dealers and one super badass moll.

That boxer, Leo has his own ghosts – abandoned as a child, he’s recently learned he has a brain tumor. Yuri (Konishi), as a means for her handlers to hold her to her trade, is often hopped up on drugs that only expounds her frenetic paranoia; the specter only she can see comes charging at her in nothing but tighty-whities. Yes, “First Love” is that kind of of gonzo good WTF. It’s a deft professional jab by Leo that brings the the two together, but before they can pause to fall in love – because you know they should be together, no matter how hopeless and desperate their futures seem – bigger machinations rise up and engulf then. A midlevel enforcer named Kase (Shôta Sometani), seeking a greater slice of the action, hatches a plan to play his mafioso boss against a rival while mixing in a squad of corrupt cops. It’s a crapshoot that goes wildly astray. There’s little redeeming about Kase, though the fact that he thinks he’s smarter than he is helps make “First Love” such an enjoyable shit show of madness and mayhem.

Kubota, who also starred in Miike’s “13 Assassins,” carries the silent accidental hero part with aplomb as Konishi’s imperiled damsel dances about him, weaving in and out of bouts of hysteria. It’s great cinematic chemistry, but the real scene stealer here is Becky Rabone as Julie, the girlfriend of the gangster henchman who was Yuri’s protector/pimp. She’s pretty good with a blade, and if there’s not one around she’s just as happy to go hand-to-hand with a larger male counterpart, stomping his brains out once she’s got him down. Talk about a take-no-prisoners attitude (though the name Julie just feels wrong for such a luridly alluring incarnation): For most the film, she rolls through the streets sans pants or skirt, just blood-splattered stockings and stiletto heels. There’s one hilariously grim scene in which a gangster has his gun-wielding arm lopped off and tries to pry the the firearm away with his remaining hand, but his dismembered arm is clutching the pistol too tightly. (“Fist Love”?) It’s classic Miike, and sure to be an elating moment for fire-branded fans. “First Love” may be a bit of a changeup, but all the twisted, dark wit is in there and served up with a wry, bloody smile. Also too, not enough can be said about Nobuyasu Kita’s fine cinematography, which captures the rain-slicked, trash-strewn streets in vibrant neon splashes.

Joker

3 Oct

‘Joker’: Phoenix tries to hold it all together, but eventually film lets loose, breaks down

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Throughout Batman’s long history, the Joker’s been played by some pretty mighty performers. Standouts include Jack Nicholson, who pretty much hijacked Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), and Heath Ledger, who won a bittersweet, posthumous Oscar for his deeply felt portrait of derangement in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) – and let’s not forget the comic genius of Cesar Romero during the 1960s TV series. Nolan and Burton felt like the right hands to shepherd a dark superhero/villain origins tale, but Todd Phillips, with such swinging steak comedies as “Old School” (2003) and the “Hangover” films to his credit? Odd as it may seem, it’s a somewhat logical evolution from drunken vomit awakenings to blood-splattered foyers with a panicked dwarf who can’t reach a chain bolt to escape.

The real reason Phillips’ “Joker” succeeds is simple: Joaquin Phoenix makes the anti-antihero psycho-saga all his own. There’s also the script by Phillips and Scott Silver that plays with the Batman mythology artfully without getting bogged down in the bigger picture – though we do briefly see Bruce Wayne at a young age, when dad and mom are with us – but without Phoenix, I don’t think “Joker” takes flight. It’s a bravura go, and Phoenix should be right up there at year’s end (like Ledger was) with Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio when Oscar nods are called out. With maybe the exception of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000) it’s hard to find a movie in which Phoenix doesn’t shine with brilliant quirk and dour doses of menace. He delivers all that here and more; it’s a total immersion. For the part of clown turned Gotham icon and sociopathic perp, Phoenix lost a ton of weight, something done with equal austerity by Christian Bale (who took up the bat cowl for Nolan) in Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” (2004) or, inversely, when Robert De Niro added 50 pounds as Jack LaMotta in “Raging Bull” – and if as on cue (send in the clowns), the Martin Scorsese-forged actor shows up in “Joker” as beloved late night TV show host Murray Franklin, whom Arthur Fleck (the Joker’s birth name) and his not-quite-all-there mother (Frances Conroy, excellent in the small complicated part) watch religiously. Continue reading