Archive | January, 2020

From the filmmakers of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

21 Jan

 

Let the Furballs Fly

21 Jan

Better than ‘Cats’: Seeing oddly terrible film when ‘audience participation’ is encouraged

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I’ve yet to see the cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” Based on reactions from that first trailer and onward, I’ve been avoiding it. But now I might go check out the feline fetish flick that made Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr write, “I’d pay to unsee it.” 

The reason? The critical and box office bomb has become something of an immersive joke, akin to Paul Verhoeven’s pole-dance disaster, “Showgirls” from back in 1995, which audiences came to adore as a garish train wreck.

Riding that wave, the Somerville Theatre has begun audience participation screenings (officially, the late-night Friday and Saturday shows, according to Facebook) with hooting and jeering not only okay, but encouraged.

“It started from the first few screenings,” theater manager Ian Judge said. “Once the word got out that something was horrendously wrong with the movie in terms of it just being so bad, so odd, so unsettling in its half-assed effects, so jumbled in plot and such a bizarre mix of stars and talents, people came in large numbers out of a curiosity.”

Raucous audience reactions didn’t sit well with everyone. “We had to issue free passes to a couple of patrons,” Judge said – leading to the more formal embrace of its lameness.

To get an idea of how bad “Cats” is, it’s a $95 million film that made only $6.6 million in its opening weekend, something a limited, arthouse release would be excited about but a death knell for a big-budget production. By comparison, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” made $177 million in its first days of wide release. On IMDB, “Cats” has a filmgoer rating of 2.8, which is lower than most films made by Steve Bannon (which I had the pleasure to research for the recent run of “American Dharma”). “Showgirls” has an IMDB rating of 4.8.

The film is directed by Tom Hooper, who has such Academy-recognized films in his pocket as “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “The Danish Girl” (2015), and it stars Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson and Rebel Wilson. But it came under scrutiny as soon as its trailer release, with the poor quality and weirdness of its special effects going tsunami viral. An animated or live-action capture film from Pixar or James Cameron takes about four-plus years of visual rendering; the makers of “Cats” did theirs in seven months. The result was so shoddy and uneven that people began hunting immediately for weird and inconsistent fur patterns, bizarre genitalia and butt sculpting, not to mention creepy, monkey-like prehensile tails and scenes in which dame Dench’s human hand, replete with wedding band, showed up. (The studio has reedited and rereleased the film.)

As with classic midnight film “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” people come to “Cats” dressed up – in cat ears and more. Judge suspects the legalization of recreational marijuana may be aiding in audience appreciation. And did I mention that the Somerville Theatre sells beer and wine? Belly up to the bar and get your best caterwaul on.

The “Cats” screenings with audience participation take place at 9:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square. General admission is $11.

Agassiz, what’s in a Name

21 Jan

Support builds for a ‘Baldwin neighborhood,’ removing racist association of Agassiz name

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior Maya Counter, right, leads a discussion Tuesday about changing the name of the Agassiz neighborhood. With her is Ann Charlotte Hogstadius, her mother. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A name change for the Agassiz neighborhood won unanimous approval this week at a community meeting, with the caveat by several voters that more conversation is needed.

The proposal to change the name to the “Baldwin neighborhood” comes from Maya Counter, a resident of the neighborhood and co-president of the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. But it’s not new – Counter, a senior, came upon the idea her sophomore year while researching a history class project and learning of the “flawed science and racist beliefs” of namesake Louis Agassiz.

It’s also not an idea new to the neighborhood. In 2002, a School Committee vote renamed the Agassiz School on Oxford Street to address the same discomfort; addressing the neighborhood name might have followed, according to people active in neighborhood politics at the time, had not many of the students and parents who pushed for the change felt burned out by the effort.

The neighborhood’s Maria L. Baldwin School was known as the Agassiz School until 2002. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There was little disagreement Tuesday about Agassiz and the context of his legacy. The Swiss-born scientist who lived from 1807 to 1873 was famous for founding Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, but controversial for pushing racially divisive theories as science. He believed in polygenism, the idea that human races are of different origins, and that whites were intellectually superior to other races. He has been discredited for his racism, and his belief in creationism lost out to the evolutionary theories of contemporary Charles Darwin.

His name was taken off the local elementary school in honor of Maria Baldwin, who in 1899 became the first black female school principal in the Northeast – “the most distinguished position achieved by a person of negro descent in the teaching world of America,” W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1917.

It was at the school that the Agassiz Neighborhood Council met Tuesday to give Counter the “constructive conversation” she requested, and a positive reaction by the approximately 30 neighborhood residents and staff in attendance.

Maria Baldwin, circa 1885. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Wider involvement sought

But there were concerns about process after Counter announced she had reached out to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and planned to present to the City Council at month’s end.

Many at the ANC meeting expressed a strong desire to be involved in the process and felt that one meeting in a neighborhood of approximately 6,000 residents – with only two dozen in attendance – was not enough. (To prepare for the meeting, Counter posted about the idea on the neighborhood social media site Nextdoor. As at the meeting, there was strong support for a name change, though also some challenges that “you can’t erase the past.”) Some people at the meeting were concerned that Counter was rushing to get the change done before graduation.

Some also floated the notion that perhaps the neighborhood was named after Agassiz’s wife, Elizabeth Cabot, a naturalist and the founder of Radcliffe College, and therefore the name might still be applicable. But correspondence from Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, stated, “The Agassiz neighborhood was named after the Agassiz School, which is now the Baldwin School.”

No clear-cut process

Renaming a neighborhood lacks a clear-cut process, despite the recent change of Area IV to “The Port.” There too, race played a role, as residents believed the term “Area IV” was a police designation (it was created by the city facilitate analysis of the then upcoming 1940 U.S. Census). The change was made official by a City Council vote in 2015 after several rounds of community solicitation. In that situation too, not everyone felt the process had been inclusive enough, said Lee Farris, a resident of The Port who is active in civic affairs.

The Agassiz change may be simpler. A policy order by city councillor E. Denise Simmons approved unanimously in April asks the city to review the names of streets, schools and public buildings “that may be named in honor of those who have ties to the American slave trade” and work on renaming them “as soon as possible.” Agassiz, while not a slave owner and on record as an abolitionist, could be linked to slavery for espousing the beliefs that enabled it.

“Why keep it?”

There is already some eagerness for a name change among the hosts of the Tuesday meeting.

In 2007 the nonprofit that provides after-school services, runs the Maud Morgan Arts Center, hosts the Agassiz Neighborhood Council meetings and provides other community services, was rebranded the Agassiz Baldwin Community – a half-measure that doesn’t sit well with Counter. “Why keep it?” she said in an interview before the meeting, referring to the “Agassiz” part of the name. “He thought she was biologically inferior. It’s disrespectful to her.”

At the meeting, the nonprofit’s executive director, Maria La Page, agreed that having the name “Agassiz” upfront was a burden for an organization that holds inclusion at its core.

The Agassiz neighborhood is between Harvard and Porter squares and touches on Somerville, defined by Massachusetts Avenue to the west and Kirkland Street to the south.

Underwater

11 Jan

 

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It turns out “1917” isn’t the only beat-the-clock film this weekend. “Underwater,” a 95-minute race against time, gets its start early and rarely lets down. No, it’s not as harrowing, sharp or intelligent as “1917,” and that’s not because it’s a sci-fi thriller that asks a lot of its viewers – it’s because it’s an ersatz hodgepodge of genre cornerstones that have come before, namely “The Abyss” (1989), the “Alien” films and so on. To say more might spoil some not-so-surprising twists.

We begin with ominous news clippings about mysterious tremors off the Pacific coast and plunge quickly down to a drilling platform 7 miles beneath the ocean surface. There Kristen Stewart’s Norah, a mechanical engineer and one of 300 workers on the rig, brushes her teeth casually as the ring-shaped structure shifts and groans worryingly. More groans, a droplet of water and then all hell breaks loose. By the time we come up for air – and it’s a jittery, frenetic sequence, maybe the film’s best – most of the structure’s gone, as are most of those 300 employees. In a sealed-off section, Norah and five other survivors come to the unhappy realization that they’re trapped, with no serviceable means of returning to the surface, and the rest of the gigantic structure is collapsing slowly down on them.

The answer, as the rig’s captain (Vincent Cassel) has it, is clunky robotic diving suits designed to withstand all that pressure and an iffy, near blind amble across the ocean floor to an older facility that may have resources to get home. Up to that point, and at the onset of that sojourn, the film’s pretty gripping (think “Deepwater Horizon” inverted) but then something weird and ghostly swims by and our budding character study becomes a creature-feature fear fest – and not a very compelling one.

Directed by William Eubank, who showed poise and promise with the mind-bending thriller “The Signal” (2014), the film’s composed competently enough, and production values are high. It’s just all weighed down by an inert storyline that doesn’t even feign putting a new spin on old tropes: As they prepare to make the trip, Norah tells the other surviving woman, Emily (Jessica Henwick), to take off her pants, as they won’t fit in the deepwater diving suit, though the goofball big boy of the group (T.J. Miller) fits into the unisex exoskeleton just fine. Later on, like in Ridley Scott’s 1979 deep space thriller, there’s a panty-line payoff; it’s not egregious, but most definitely worthy of an eye roll. Through it all, the bespectacled Stewart (in an Annie Lennox bob) maintains a commanding hold of the screen, casting palatable emotions as needed. Without her, “Underwater” might have been a full-on collapse; even with, when the camera starts to settle on Norah and her mates and something crashes down or swims in from the dark, it reminds us that these humans are just chum. Best not to get too attached.

1917

10 Jan

‘1917’: They’ve only a short time to save lives, and we go with them through the hell of war

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When it comes to war movies, there’s plenty about World War II but far, far less when it comes to chronicling its bloody predecessor. What exists is pretty rich and powerful, including classics such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), “Gallipoli” (1981, and a classic!) and “Paths of Glory” (1957), which all captured the barbaric horror of trench warfare – inhumane hellholes of mass slaughter where heroics were measured by the last man standing. A couple of years ago, Peter Jackson fittingly embraced those lost heroes with the cinematic ode “They Shall Not Grow Old,” the “Lord of the Rings” director’s first documentary; and looking to add to that list, director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty” and “Skyfall”) drops a taut, face-paced shot of adrenaline on us in “1917,” which might not be long on plot, but pins you to the edge effectively as the clock ticks and ordinance explodes overhead.

Much will be made about the long-shot cinematography by Roger Deakins (“Fargo” and an Oscar winner for “Blade Runner 2049”). It’s absolutely brilliant, and any of those pooh-poohing it as a gimmick likely don’t understand the technical complexity involved. Deakins’ artistry gets put on display from frame one as we meet up with young lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) lazing wearily in a field. Brought bleary-eyed before their C.O., they’re ordered to deliver a message to another allied outpost several clicks away: The grim circumstance of the situation is that communications are down, and if they fail to make the drop before the next sunrise, some 1,600 British soldiers will march into a trap and be slaughtered. Blake’s brother, as we’re informed, is among the unaware – the sense of urgency’s not just paramount, its personal.

From that brief, officious interlude, we’re off, following the lads down into the trenches, through the bomb burst, across the wire and into German-controlled French countryside. Along the way, mangled corpses hang from barbed wire entanglements and bob in the mud pits and streams they must cross. Then there’s the close encounters with the enemy, including the pilot of a downed biplane, when a brief moment of humanity turns deadly. The whole harrowing ordeal unfurls in real time, with the two constantly flushed, harried and under fire. In its pressure-cooked pace, “1917” invokes the same fraught “what could possibly go wrong next?” anxiousness that “Uncut Gems” rattled us with just weeks ago.

What’s most impressive about Mendes’ salute to valor is the seamless synergy of choreography, action and sound (both ambient and Thomas Newman’s soul-shaking score). It’s an immersive effect that embeds you with the soldiers as if you were there, following as they charge through the trenches and duck enemy fire. That POV, while wholly visceral and unique, also makes “1917” feel a bit like a video game, in which depth of character becomes secondary to the next eye-popping visual. Chapman and MacKay are plenty fine, mind you; they’re just not given the theatrical real estate to expand. It’s all action, all the time. Pauses along the frenetic path do give us a chance to breathe when the pair check in with higher-ups (played by Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong), but then it’s onto the next bullet-blazing gauntlet.

Murder Still a Mystery, One Year Later

3 Jan

 

District Attorney Marian Ryan steps aside at a Thursday press conference in Woburn so Elizabeth Dobbins can speak on the one-year anniversary of the death of her brother, Paul Wilson. (Photo: Tom Meek)

On the one-year anniversary of the killing of Paul Wilson, 60, in Danehy Park, law enforcement officials gathered at the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office in Woburn on Thursday to assure the public they continue to investigate – and to ask again for the public’s help in finding the killer.

Joining them was Wilson’s sister, Elizabeth Dobbins, who reflected on Wilson as big man with a big heart, and a man who valued family and friends. “He could connect with anyone and everyone,” she said, calling his death “incomprehensible and senseless.”

While there was little new to be revealed by District Attorney Marian Ryan and Cambridge police Deputy Superintendent Leonard DiPietro, it was made clear that a bat found at the scene of the crime was not used to kill Wilson.

“There is nothing that connects this item with the crime,” officials said. “A search of the park following the attack resulted in the collection of several samples of biological matter. Forensic testing has been conducted indicating that some of the blood found at the scene was animal blood; testing on further biological evidence remains ongoing.”

An image of Paul Wilson released Thursday by law enforcement officials.

Videos given to police by people in the area have not provided any answers, and Ryan said hundreds of park neighbors and visitors have been interviewed. “By revisiting this anniversary today, we are reminding the community of this crime and reinforcing the need for cooperation and information from the general public,” DiPietro added.

It was also noted that since the attack on Wilson, “investigators have also been made aware of some similar incidents that have occurred in Cambridge and other communities” but are not connected to his death, they said. “He was also found with his belongings on him, including an Apple Watch – suggesting robbery was not the motive.”

On Jan. 2, 2019, Wilson returned from work at IBM to the Porter Square T station and rode a Blue Bike home, parking it by his house on Sherman Street before walking through the park,  investigators said. Wilson was found by a passer-by shortly before 6:48 p.m. on an asphalt path near the Danehy Park parking lot and dumpsters, near New Street. He was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and pronounced dead from blunt force trauma at around 10:18 p.m. 

“There’s no reason to believe the crime didn’t take place where the body was found [and] there’s more reason to believe it did,” Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. said at a public meeting a year ago. “Mr. Wilson was found right under working lights in a well-lit area. That wasn’t the problem.”

The discussion of motive was similar to what was discussed a year ago.  Wilson was “brutally murdered,” Bard said, and Ryan said at the time that there was no reason to believe the intention of the attack, in which “most of the blows were to the top of the head,” was a robbery. 

The death continues to be investigated by the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, state police assigned there and by Cambridge police. “We have made some progress but have not ye identified a suspect,” Ryan said Thursday, renewing a call for anyone with information about the incident to call (781) 897-6600.

People with information are also invited to call Cambridge Police at (617) 349-3300. Anonymous reports can be left at (617) 349-3359; sent by text message to 847411 (begin your text with TIP650, then type your message); or by email by visiting CambridgePolice.org/Tips.

American Dharma

2 Jan

‘American Dharma’: Bannon in a bunker, explaining what makes him tick, tick, tick …

 

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The latest from local filmmaker and provocateur Errol Morris presents something of a rewind of the 2016 election, as well as a delve into the alt-right media machine – with a healthy side of cinema studies to boot. Morris’ somewhat controversial “American Dharma” provides plenty of space for former Trump campaign organizer/adviser and Breitbart honcho Steve Bannon to make his case for Trump and the hard right, most of it through cinematic references such as Gregory Peck’s iron-fisted general in “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949), Robert Redford’s out-of-left-field pol in “The Candidate” (1972) and John Wayne in pretty much any John Ford western. Turns out Bannon’s a fan of Morris’ award-winning doc “The Fog of War” (2003), which featured businessman and secretary of defense Robert McNamara, who like Bannon attended Harvard Business School and similarly treated war and politics as business problems and chess matches.

Early on, as Morris interviews the commanding agitator in an abandoned hanger – ostensibly emulating Peck’s command center in that Henry King classic – Bannon in his gushing appreciation of “Fog of War” gives Morris an insider pat on the back about filmmaking. It’s an eye-popping pause, but true enough: Bannon has 10 directorial credits on IMDB, with such right-wing propaganda docs as “Torchbearer” (2016) and “Battle for America” (2010), most having abysmally low ratings (in the 2 or 3 range, with one or two breaking the middling 5 mark). During the session, Bannon recounts his entry at Breitbart, the takedown of Anthony Weiner on Twitter and joining Trump with shrewd strategies to shift the tide in the 2016 presidential campaign. For instance: to counter the Billy Bush tape, he attempted to sit Bill Clinton’s four sexual assault accusers at the front of a presidential debate the former president was to be in attendance at. The mention of Russian trolls is scant, and Hillary Rodham Clinton in her own words (via a post-election interview clip) attributes her loss almost exactly to what Bannon does: the Comey investigation and emails to Weiner.

Throughout the film, which boasts a smart score and does a brilliant job of interweaving film and news clips with public opinion overlaid via the Twittersphere, Morris, who clearly has vastly different political leanings than Bannon, affords his subject a long leash – perhaps too long – but not one that can’t be tugged on by the factual record. It’s nearly comical and hard to fathom when Bannon balks incredulously at Morris’ announcement that he voted for Hillary because he feared Trump. Later, when Morris links Bannon’s departure from the White House to the deadly Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bannon does a soft shoe and reverts to his fearmongering prognostications of greater divisions to come (check out his latest venture, warroom.org.) 

If there’s one thing to drink in about Bannon, it’s his cocksure confidence and charisma (on display more here than when at Trump’s side). He’s a clear natural leader with patriotic zeal, but the question then becomes: of whose country, and with what agenda? Morris and subject go at that, and watching the film, it’s chilling to see the spell Bannon and the alt-right can cast. Educated progressives clearly discounted that too much in the past; Morris’ film serves as stark (if accidental) reminder of that, and a timely one.