Archive | February, 2020

Emma.

27 Feb
tmp=emma

I always find it curious that “Emma” was the last novel Jane Austen wrote before her passing. “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” always felt more mature, wise and insightful. They’re also less gleeful and spry.

It’s important to note that the title of the film by Autumn de Wilde, tackling Austen in her feature debut, is “Emma.” with a period at the end of the title. One might think it’s to not to be confused with the 1996 version staring Gwyneth Paltrow, or maybe to simply inform cinema-goers that this is the definitive celluloid (well, digital) version – period! However you take it, de Wilde’s vision of 19th century English countryside is a rich one, rooted in details, period dress and the title character’s ever alluring array of earrings. One astute detail is the use of folding panel draft screens, each a piece of period art in their own right, positioned by the help to keep their wealthy estate owners warm as they relax in the living room gabbing and imbibing a cordial or, more mundanely, reading. In one scene, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) instructs the helping hands to move two such panels to exact locations to keep her father (the indomitable Bill Nighy) warm. The hyper (draft) sensitive effete is certainly snug and happy, but what Emma has more intentionally done is create space for her and her next-door neighbor (fields and sculpted gardens away), the overly solemn Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), to whisper privately about affairs of the heart.

Emma, it turns out, is a master manipulator, ever so prim on the outside but inside scripting the love lives of the young and unsuspecting roaming the quaint confines of the bucolic burg just a day’s jaunt from London. Those caught up in her matchmaking, besides Knightley, are her tag-along of lower social station, Harriet (a wonderful Mia Goth),  Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), a sensitive, hardworking farmer with a square jaw , the prideful world traveler Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Emma’s de facto social rival, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson). Most of Emma’s semi-well-intentioned plots (most with a modicum of personal gain attached) backfire with a dour muffled cough. Nothing in Austen’s very staid land ever erupts outwardly, though Flynn’s brooding Knightley feels like a bull in a narrow stall looking to explode. It’s a Heath Ledger-esque performance, understated yet thoroughly compelling. (Interestingly, Flynn in is slated to play rockers David Bowie and Ray Davies in upcoming projects.)

It’s hard to pick a shining star in de Wilde’s opulent period piece. Goth, Nighy and Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, a nonstop chatterbox as sweet as she is annoying, all add perfect bits of garnish to the Knightley-Emma Woodhouse tug-of-war of emotion and desire. Mark one thing: “Emma.” lifts Taylor-Joy over the top as a serious young performer in the ranks of Thomasin McKenzie (“Leave No Trace,” “Jojo Rabbit”) and Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird,” “Little Women”). Coincidentally, the name of her occult young woman in her breakthrough, Robert Egger’s “The Witch” (2015), was Thomasin, and she’ll star this year with McKenzie in the Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver,” Shaun of the Dead”) project “Last Night in Soho.” And as much as Joy-Taylor lifts the film with her ebullient, wide eyes that mask mixed feelings, credit for a work that feels like both a fairytale and a master painting goes to de Wilde – amazingly, at nearly 50, notching her first-time shot. The script by “The Luminaries” novelist Eleanor Catton, like Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” metes in just the right amount of modern female gaze without unsettling a single apple in Austen’s cart. Flynn and Taylor-Joy have their trajectories mapped, but it’s de Wilde (who got her detailed eye making videos for Beck and Jenny Lewis) that’s the eye-opener here, and the new hot one to watch.

 

Black History Month – Cambridge Notables

26 Feb

Black Bookmark Project highlights pioneers less known, but all worth taking a page from

An opportunity to remember William Henry Lewis, ‘great man’ of firsts

 

tmp-BHM1Joyce London Alexander, in an image from the Cambridge Black Trailblazers website.

This Black History Month sees the launch of the Cambridge Black Bookmark Project, giving young readers free bookmarks – photos on the front, biographies on the back – introducing more people to a generation of black trailblazers not yet given physical markers around the city.

The Cambridge Black Trailblazers project adds to and updates work begun by the Cambridge African American Heritage Alliance, which installed 20 markers citywide honoring the achievements of black leaders from the 1840s to World War II, said project coordinator James Spencer, representing a committee of another half-dozen people. The group printed 7,000 bookmarks, of which about 4,000 have been given to the school district. Others have gone to the City Council to hand out and to the families of the people being celebrated; a donation of up to 2,000 of the bookmarks to city libraries awaits permission, he said.

“This has been a labor of love … But this is just the beginning. In order to continue, the project will need additional resources,” said Spencer, a retired civil rights and diversity officer, describing plans for at least 20 bookmarks led by an initial seven.

Movers and shakers

The first batch includes Joyce London Alexander, who went from first black president of the CRLS student council to first black chief magistrate in the United States; Charles Leroy Gittens, the first black Secret Service agent and protector of U.S. presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gerald Ford before taking charge of all agency field offices; Elizabeth Rawlins, an educator who became a longtime dean at Simmons College; Leon West, who became famous as a chef in New Orleans; Roy Allen, a television producers and director who became the first black member of the Directors Guild of America; Henry Owens, the entrepreneur behind Green Moving; and civil rights activist Gertrude Wright Morgan, who recently got a street named after her in Canbridge Crossing – after work began on the trailblazers project.

“It is critically important that young people, as well as the larger Cambridge community, recognize the selfless and courageous contributions of these individuals in a generational period of painful discrimination,” Spencer said.

“This initial phase of the project was developed, researched, financed and launched by a committee of dedicated volunteers, with support from the Cambridge Historical Commission,” he said, calling sponsors – individual, corporate and philanthropic – vital to move the project forward from this hopeful start. Continue reading

Tread

21 Feb

‘Tread’: They did this bulldozer owner wrong, and he’ll take out half the town to make it right

tmp-tread22

Documentarian Paul Solet takes a newsreel curio and turns it into “Tread,” a riveting, anthropological examination of small-town life, the hairs that get curled during long legal proceedings and the psychological pathology of righteous retribution. If you dial back to 2004 you may recollect a pissed-off citizen going berserk in the podunk town of Granby, Colorado, with a bulldozer. It was no ordinary piece of construction equipment, but a Komatsu D55A tricked out with armor and automatic weapons – in essence, a tank that authorities were ineffective in stopping for a several-hourlong rampage.

But before getting to that, Solet rewinds to what would send Marvin Heemeyer over the edge. It’s important to keep in mind that Granby’s a close-knit mountain town of 2,000. In interviews, many townsfolk reflect fondly on Heemeyer, noting his amiable manner and skill as a welder and skimobile racer. During the buildup we also meet Trisha Macdonald, Heemeyer‘s girlfriend, whose sensible and reflective presence doesn’t suggest the kind of person who would take up with someone who was arguably off their rocker, let alone a brimming sociopath. But then there are tape recordings by Heemeyer himself, righteous and delusional: “God bless me in advance for the task which I am about to undertake.” In a pivotal scene underscoring the psychological mood, a re-enactor playing Heemeyer shaves his head, Travis Bickle style, before firing up the big rig.

The pushing point, we’re told, is a long simmering land dispute. Heemeyer owned and operated a muffler and welding shop, but the parcel he bought at auction was also desired by a local businessman with strong municipal and political ties. Infractions and numerous legal battles – that Heemeyer lost – added up and took their toll, forcing the 50-something craftsman to withdraw and put his skill to work. The killdozer, when you first catch a glimpse of it, seems like something out of a zany sci-fi or post-apocalyptic film. What’s also impressive is Solet’s meticulous orchestration of the narrative, especially during that final chaotic showdown when a gantlet of police, grenades, 50-caliber bullets and even earth movers couldn’t stop Heemeyer from obliterating half the town. The blend of archival footage, commentary from the participants and re-enacted dramatization builds with the taut grit of a hardboiled thriller.

Solet, born and raised in Cambridge, cut his teeth in the horror genre (“Grace,” “Dark Summer” and a “Tales of Halloween” segment). His last outing, “Bullet Head” (2017) was something of a crime thriller with an envious cast, featuring Adrien Brody, Antonio Banderas and John Malkovich. The project wasn’t quite fully baked, but perhaps a helpful warm up for “Tread,” a clear departure for Solet that’s a compelling ride and a window into the machinations of small-town life that push one of their own too far.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

21 Feb

‘What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael’: Sweet kiss for film critic with acid tongue

 

tmp-PK

Rob Garver’s hagiographic ode to the life and work of film critic Pauline Kael adequately covers the writer’s rise to her post at The New Yorker, her daunting (perhaps exaggerated?) influence on the film industry and her legions of A-list admirers. What distinguished Kael, besides being the lone woman in an all-male club when she got into film criticism back in the 1950s, were her uniquely punchy, eloquent and visceral reactions, many imparted in a single sentence. Kael also became famous for her embrace of graphic violence (she largely adored Scorsese, De Palma, Peckinpah and Coppola) and envelop-pushing erotica (“Last Tango in Paris”) while gouging away at sacred cows such as French New Wave icon “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and Christmas classic “The Sound of Music” (“the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat”).

“What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is framed with tape recording of Kael being interviewed by a young girl who gaily asks the critic her first movie (Chaplin) and later, her favorite film is (a detail I’ll let the moviegoer discover). Kael, who lived in Great Barrington and died just before 9/11, came from humble roots in Northern California, where she attended college at Berkeley. She never graduated, failed as a playwright in New York and her one marriage ended quickly, but throughout it all she maintained a deep passion for emotion-provoking narratives, be they bound by book jacket or cinematically projected. Her early reviews were on radio and for free, but being a single mother Kael looked to get paid for her labor; before landing at The New Yorker she was at McCall’s, which ended badly. 

Film clips spruce up the narrative, sometimes to echo Kael’s thoughts and other times simply as illustrating the film being trumpeted or impaled. We get Kael’s personal reflections from letters and other scrawlings read by Sarah Jessica Parker in voice only, evoking a smooth, husky Hollywood starlet persona that feels warmly congruent with the actual Kael we hear at the bookends, and in interview clips with Dick Cavett and other TV talk show hosts of the era. Plenty of celebrities lend their talking heads to the project, most prominently screenwriter/director Robert Towne (“Chinatown”), Alec Baldwin and film-nerd-turned-auteur Quentin Tarantino. Continue reading

Love is Not Love

16 Feb

Looking for Love in all the wrong places, or a walk on metaphysical side

tmp-;ove2

Stephen Keep Mills, a character actor for decades, now in his spry early 70s, makes his feature directorial debut with this tres meta contemplation about love, desire and the actualization of. Shot in stark black and white, Mills’s satire “Love is Not Love” rambles through the streets of New York as we drop in on dicey shards of dialogue ranging from the weird, “He wants to lick my arm pit,” to the provocative, “I could love more than one man at the same time. Even the same day, no problem!” and as one might expect, the sophomoric, “Dude, jacking off is not cardio.”

Yes, Mills is looking to give us a kick in shins and he does so effectively until we settle in with Frank (Mills) our protagonist, a silver maned lion with sad eyes, well past his prime and no longer king of a pride. We follow him along somberly as he lags behind two Irish construction workers debating the merits of women and Thomas Mallory’s seminal work, “Tristan and Isolde.” Frank seems invisible to the two like Bruno Gantz’s rueful angel in “Wings of Desire.” Interestingly too, “Love is Not Love” is rendered in a similar lush, matted black and white texture, a mood accentuating signature of Wim Wenders’s international masterpiece. Wenders shot as much of his 1987 film on location as the East Germans would allow him (Germany was not united at the time and shooting scenes at the Berlin Wall was denied and required sets). Mills on the other hand, shot his New York story on a sound stage in Los Angeles using old rear-screen projection for the backdrop imagery that for all its antiquated gimmickry provides tremendous field of depth and virtuosity. The lo-fi effect’s not only impressive, it’s aesthetically mesmerizing. Continue reading

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

14 Feb

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’: Sparking ache, painter is also responsible for capturing it

 

tmp-ladyOF

For those still mulling awards season, Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was by far the best film that wasn’t up for consideration at Sunday’s Oscars party. The French romance (award eligible last year, yet coming here aptly in time for Valentine’s Day), for all its impressive accomplishments in cinematography, direction, riveting performances and more, wasn’t its country’s selection for Best International Feature Film (“Les Miserables” was).

Somber, strong and palpably felt, the staid aura of “Lady on Fire” echoes its setting on the eve of the French Revolution, when maintaining one’s posture as a “lady” is practically all society registers. We never drink in that society – though we do feel its effects – and see barely any men. Most of the film takes place in a spare chateau atop the oceanic cliffs of Brittany, where Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a portrait artist, has been summoned to paint the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), betrothed by her mother (Valeria Golino) to a Milanese nobleman. The young woman and man of station have never meet. The painting is in essence Héloïse‘s Match.com profile pic and calling card. So far, par for the course, but there’s a few complications: Héloïse’s older sister had been promised to the same noble and for reasons never fully illuminated, yet wildly provocative, may have taken her life to avoid the ceremony. Héloïse, next in queue, has vehemently opposed both the painting and the arrangement, making Marianne‘s task something of a challenge beyond her professional expertise. To circumvent such obstacles, Héloïse‘s mother suggests Marianne embed herself as companion and something of a handmaiden, employ observation and, later, commit the evocation to canvas when in solitude. Continue reading

Birds of Prey

8 Feb
tmp-birds-of-prey

Looking back at my dismissal of “Suicide Squad” (2016), I pined for a vehicle that would bask in the glorious kitsch and kink of Margot Robbie’s infectious sociopathic supervillain, Harley Quinn. Well, here we are with “Birds of Prey,” and I’ll just say that sometimes one’s desires are best left unrealized. In that DC spinoff, Quinn (say her name fast, Harley Quinn, Harlequin, i.e. a comedic servant), an S-Squad front-villain, was also the gal pal of the Joker (Jared Leto). Here, in a film with a subtitle celebrating the “emancipation” of Harley Quinn, we never glimpse the green-haired “jester of genocide” that Joaquin Phoenix so recently elevated to Oscar-worthy fare; instead we begin with Harley’s breaking up with him in hyper explosive fashion.

That freedom, however, means it’s open season on Quinn, who in her drunken celebration breaks the kneecaps of the driver of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), the owner of the nightclub she’s taken over, and Gotham’s biggest organized crime boss. Everyone’s out to get Quinn: the cops, those she wronged while under the auspices of the Joker, even the brother of the exotic pet shop owner Quinn buys a breakup hyena at – creepy guy comes onto her, she feeds him to her new furry bestie. In her hungover state, all Quinn wants is the perfect egg sando from her favorite greasy spoon, but before she can have a curing bite, boozy Gotham detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, fantastic) corners her and we’re off to the races with Quinn giving us fourth-wall narrative asides, “DeadPool” style. Continue reading

The Assistant

7 Feb

‘The Assistant’: Movie producer has a system, and it’s entirely too simple to become part of it

tmp-assist

Kitty Green’s bold, stage-like office drama couldn’t be more timely. It’s about a low-level assistant to an unnamed, never really seen New York film producer who’s demanding, vitriolic and, worse, casts a long shadow of perpetual dread – in short, the unseen force of fear is Harvey Weinstein. Through karmic justice and a deep sense of ironic circumstance, the once ballyhooed champion of indie cinema is in the middle of a milestone sexual abuse trial just as “The Assistant,” hot out of Sundance, hits theaters.

Much of the action takes place in a generically dull office where Jane (Julia Garner, so good in “Ozark”) lands as the new hire in a pool of three who staff the mogul’s gateway to heaven and hell. The film, aptly low-fi, possesses the same absurd nihilistic texture that made Neil LaBute’s blistering 1997 tale of office-sanctioned misogyny, “In the Company of Men,” so riveting. The only way we experience Jane’s boss is through muffled barbs from the earpiece of her phone, murmurs and inaudible loud shouts from behind the door and a few emails that come to Jane after she’s shared too much information about his whereabouts (which is usually a hotel room with an aspiring actress) to his suspecting wife. The response to such angry emails is always along the lines of “I’m sorry … I won’t let you down again,” with phrasing provided by two male counterparts who vary in their support of Jane but regularly dump menial duties down the ladder and onto her desk.

There’s not a lot of movement in “The Assistant.” Comely young women waltz in and out, the wife continues to make loaded inquiries and we hardly leave the confines of that outer office. Garner, who’s stock is clearly on the rise, tucks Jane’s appalled humiliation just under the surface as her assistant comes to a slow understanding of having to balance career aspirations with male-dominated office culture. Push comes to shove when Jane sets up a young waitress from Boise (Makenzie Leigh) in a posh hotel room – and later at the empty desk across the way to be the next “new” assistant. No longer able to rationalize away the odious events, Jane grabs an impromptu meeting with the head of HR (Matthew Macfadyen, from “Succession”). It’s a telling encounter that Green, as screenwriter with knives out, carves with masterful gamesmanship.

In the end, “The Assistant” isn’t didactic; nor does it wave the #MeToo flag. It doesn’t have to. Green, whose short CV holds mostly documentaries such as “Casting JonBenet” (2017) – about the slain 6-year-old beauty princess – embraces a cinéma vérité style. In long shots, we observe as if a fly on the wall. In one scene as Jane washes dishes in the corporate kitchenette, two women in heavy conversation about a project ignore her as she listens attentively while trying to appear disinterested; when done with their chatter, the women dump their dishes on Jane without acknowledging her. As with “Bombshell” last year, the power dynamics in “The Assistant” are chilling. In the former we know how that went for Roger Ailes; we’ll find out about that movie guy soon enough.

 

“Cats” Keeps on Purring

5 Feb

The many lives and allure of big-screen ‘Cats,’ the hairball Hollywood coughed up into a cult

 

tmp-cats som
Usher Cat and Popcorn Tickets – staffers at the Somerville Theatre – run the weekend “audience participation” screenings of the film “Cats.” (Photo: Tom Meek)

A few weeks back I wrote about the second life (of nine?) for the failed film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical “Cats” taking form at the Somerville Theatre. Turns out the film’s reincarnation as an “audience participation” cult – come in costume, drink alcoholic beverages and shout at the screen – has more claws than the studio’s initial Christmas release: Despite its Oscar ambitions, critics tanked it, and hardly anyone filled the theater. (Opening opposite a hotly anticipated “The Rise of Skywalker” probably wasn’t the wisest choice.) To date the film has made barely more than half its nearly $100 million budget and, because of massive digitalization gaffes, had to be reedited and rereleased by Universal two weeks in. As a regular seven-days-a-week run became just slots on the weekend, though, it’s those late-night Friday and Saturday showings that have sold out. To check out just the freaky furball fun and gauge the cinematic awfulness of the talent-laden miscue (it does have Oscar winners galore), I swung by the Somerville Theatre on Friday.

It was a robust (two-thirds full) and raucous crew (mostly millennials with a boomer here and there), but I was slightly disappointed no audience members were in costume – just the feline-fashioned hosts, Usher Cat and Popcorn Tickets (theater staffers, adding a twist to the phenom) who had a few rules for the audience to follow. “Rule No. 1,” growled Usher Cat, “Don’t be a jerk or a dog.” Another stipulation asked audience members to “take the kitty litter home and not throw any projectiles at the screen,” and lastly, “Cheer for milk!” (when you see it). There were a few rounds of trivia, including the naming of cats in the films “Alien” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Usher Cat made an oblique reference to “catnip edibles” (part of the conjecture for the the rise of “Cats,” theater manager Ian Judge surmised, is the recent legalization of recreational cannabis). Then it was showtime. Continue reading