Archive | September, 2020

Tenet

14 Sep

‘Tenet’: Time travel caper by Christopher Nolan chooses its moment, masked against apocalypse

By Tom Meek

Well, I did it: I went to a theater and saw “Tenet.” Would I recommend you to? That’s a personal call. For me it didn’t feel too risky, but read on. I attended a 4 p.m. show at Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinema. I bought my ticket online, but still had to wait in line to show the usher behind a plexiglass shield my emailed barcode and get a printed ticket. I saw only three other people at the theater, all folks asking for senior discounts – in short, those in high-risk categories but clearly desperate for an in-theater experience, as was I. Landmark offered no snacks, and masks had to be worn 100 percent of the time. Every two seats in the theaters are blocked off, and management asks you to sit in alternating rows – something, I did not need to worry about. I was the only person at my screening. (Apple Cinemas near Fresh Pond and Alewife is showing it too, since reopening Friday.)

This being a Christopher Nolan film, seeing it on a big screen is kind of a must – in the very least for the imposing, driving score (by Ludwig Göransson, though it feels and sounds a lot like Hans Zimmer’s work on Nolan’s 2010 “Inception”) and the impressive camera work by Hoyte Van Hoytema, Oscar-nominated for Nolan’s WWII time scramble, “Dunkirk” (2017). Playing with time and space is Nolan’s thing; he did it with “Memento” (2000) to tell a murder mystery in reverse, and “Interstellar” (2012) as space travelers who go through a black hole where decades of Earth time pass in minute. Here time is imbued into objects sent back from the future. Sounds zany, right? It’s one of the things you just let wash over you, because no matter how hard Nolan and his characters try to explain, you feel like you’re just not getting it. The best I can do is that you can rewind history and insert yourself into the action – in essence, altering the future – but the catch is everyone else is moving in reverse while you’re going forward. People walk backward, cars go in reverse, and bullets get sucked back into their gun. 

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things

4 Sep

I’m Thinking of Ending Things’: Breaking up – hard to do even without a blinding storm of meta

By Tom Meek

The latest from the mind of Charlie Kaufman, the man who penned “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), making his third directorial effort feels something of a follow-up to his trippy yet meandering 2008 debut, “Synecdoche, New York” if co-written by David Foster Wallace. Interestingly enough, Wallace is one of the many solemn topics discussed in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” by Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley, whose character is never given a name and is referred to in the credits only as “the young woman”) on an arduous road trip. Other pleasant and not so pleasant subjects arise as the two sail through a brimming snowstorm: Mussolini, Wordsworth, the musical “Oklahoma!” and suicide bombers – routine stuff, in Kaufman’s universe.

Tellingly, as the sojourners dig intellectually deep into anything grim or arty, their seeming road to nowhere takes on an existential quality, an apt reflection of where the couple’s relationship is likely heading on their way to meet Jake’s parents. They’ve been dating for a few weeks and already the pairing seems doomed, if not done. The title, taken from Ian Reid’s novel (that the film is based on) is not about suicide, as one might think, but the refrain in voiceover asides by Buckley’s passenger about how she needs to end things with Jake each time he responds to her vibrant snark with glum counter offerings.

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Mulan

4 Sep

‘Mulan’: The story’s familiar, but now live action in big screen spectacle relegated to small screen

By Tom Meek

I feel like part of the onus of this review is to answer: Is the film worth the $30 it costs to stream on Disney+? I promise I’ll get to that. First let me just say that this live-action version of the 1998 hand-animated feature (both based on an ancient Chinese ballad and historical events) is stunning to take in, most notably the set design and stunts, though the leap to a more epic and spectacular format has nipped some of the wonderment and depth of character – similar to what befell the near real-life animation redux of “The Lion King” last year. Clearly there’s something inherent in the simple classic animation construct, be it the childlike innocence or abstraction of reality, that makes theses fable-esque tales come to life more viscerally.

The narrative here is the pretty much the same as before. Mulan (Liu Yifei) doesn’t want her aging and war-scarred father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) to be enlisted into the emperor’s army (martial artist Jet Li, hard to recognize) after a mandate issued for one man from every household to battle the marauding hordes from the north (led by Jason Scott Lee, who played Bruce Lee in “Dragon”), so she dresses up as a boy and assumes the family post. As a soldier, Mulan proves fierce and effective, as well as being a natural leader and the butt of fellow warriors’ jokes about her Pigpen-esque odor because she refuses to partake in group bathing. The nice addition here is Li Gong (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Miami Vice”) as a witch – something of a Morgan le Fay – in the service of Lee’s raider. Always captivating in posture, poise and projection, she’s the one who takes over every scene she’s in. Gone is Eddie Murphy’s wiseass dragon, though it’s replaced with a nonsensical phoenix that crops up to let you know a major transition has just taken place. (Geez, thanks, I didn’t know.) The other reason to see the film is the stunt work, with warriors leaping up inverted walls as if they were in an “Inception” maze and some nifty horseback gymnastics by Mulan and enemy archers; still, it doesn’t near apex wire work such as in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow” from just last year.

Intriguingly, the film’s directed by Niki Caro, who’s made a series of impressively intimate and internal feminist-themed films including “Whale Rider” (2002), “North Country” (2005) and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (2017) but gets a bigger palette here – and likely more studio supervision. As a result, the New Zealand-born director’s normal inward-looking lens feels obscured in the vastness.

Now back to that question: Is “Mulan” worth $30 to stream? Keep in mind you need to be a Disney+ subscriber, and if you’re not you have to lay out another $7 per month. The film, once you unlock it, is yours to watch as long as you keep paying those $7 bills, vs. let’s say “Bill & Ted Face the Music” which costs $25 to own on Amazon Prime and $20 to rent, giving you 30 days to watch it and 48 hours to finish after starting it. If you have kids who love the movie and will watch it over and over, it makes solid financial sense. If you’re a curious cinephile holed up on your own, probably not so much. The film for my money would have been more enjoyable on the big screen where the wire stunts, rich colors and meticulous sets would have stood out even more; given the safety factor, Disney’s done the responsible thing. That still doesn’t atone for what’s lost in translation, but for these times it’s a viable event for a family to enjoy safely together.

Wheel Good People

3 Sep

Wheel good people: Riders can see solutions from astride bicycle seats, and really deliver

By Tom Meek

The Agassiz Baldwin Community’s Phoebe Sinclair talks Friday with volunteer riders in the Cambridge Bike Delivery Program. (Photo: Raina Fox)

Efforts to address challenges such as Covid-19 and racial division and to better the community are zooming along on two wheels, undeterred by the death of bicyclist Darryl Willis in Harvard Square on Aug. 18. One effort, the Cambridge Bike Delivery Program, was set up at the onset of the pandemic to address the needs of at-risk elders and others with limited means; another, the Cambridge Bike Give Back Program, was launched in response to George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis on Memorial Day and subsequent Black Lives Matter activities.

The Cambridge Bike Delivery concept grew organically among members of the Cambridge Bike Safety Group – an amalgam of local cyclists without any real hierarchy, assembled with the mission of advocating for safe streets in Cambridge – to make home deliveries of meds and groceries to seniors from Skenderian Apothecary, Inman Pharmacy, Pemberton Farms Marketplace and other stores without a delivery services. The logistics “proved to be tougher than anticipated,” organizer Rebecca Neuman said. “We had over 300 cyclists, but it was hard to line people up on dates and times.” Outreach to the elderly became something of a challenge as well, and the effort waned. But Neuman struck up conversations with staff at the Agassiz Baldwin Community Center and Margaret Fuller House, in The Port neighborhood. The Margaret Fuller House runs its own food pantry program, while the Agassiz Baldwin Community Center has just become an outpost for the Cambridge Community Center food pantry. Both programs needed volunteers to deliver food to the vulnerable, so Neuman set up a signup portal to coordinate riders with deliveries on the days the food pantries got shipments.

A rider sets out Aug. 25 with a delivery for the Cambridge Bike Delivery Program. (Photo: Tom Meek)

For each provider there are a dozen to several dozen deliveries on any given pantry day, coming three to four times a week. Neuman, who puts in a few hours each week to keep it all flowing, tries to keep the matches surgical and lean. The loads for the Margaret Fuller House are about 10 to 20 pounds of vegetables per delivery, bulky and heavy loads for which most riders employ a tagalong trailer or large food delivery bag, coordinator and director of finance and operations Cory Haynes said. The hauls from Cambridge Community Services range from frozen foods to baby diapers; one delivery rider recalled having to deliver an ice cream cake during high, humid 80-degree weather.

For the Agassiz Baldwin Community Center and Margaret Fuller House, the venture has been a natural and helpful fit that should carry on post-coronavirus, and Neuman is looking for other ways to use the volunteer army of riders – possibly reenabling curbside composting, which was suspended by the city during the coronavirus lockdown. (Though the mention of odor and stench trailing behind a hard-pedaling cyclist had Neuman and Haynes scrunching up their noses over a Zoom call.)

Bike Give Back

Lonnell Wells, right, put together his Cambridge Bike Give Back program after consulting with friends in the community. (Photo: Lonnell Wells)

The Cambridge Bike Give Back program was started just over a month ago by Lonnell Wells and a collection of friends he calls his “community.” Wells, distraught after Floyd’s murder, looked inward and talked deeply with them about what could be done to fix the country. The giveback program is “Plan B,” Wells said – “something to do for the kid who doesn’t have the bike to ride with their friends, the ex-con who just got a job who doesn’t have the money to ride the T, and a way for people to exercise when you can’t go to the gym.” The process is simple: Wells has taken to social media to ask for “broken old bikes” that he and his team piece together and give to those in need; jubilant photos from pickups and drop-offs are easy to find on social media. At the time of our sit-down, Wells estimated the program had collected more than 30 broken bikes and given back 17.

Wells grew up in The Port – “Area 4,” as he still fondly calls it – and graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, but now lives in Chelsea, has a 10-year-old son and works as a chef at Boston University. He refers to his post-work scavenging expeditions to gather bike carcasses as “demon time.” For the bike assemblies, Wells host parties, for which he does what he does: cooks. Partial to Southern food, Wells likes to make collard greens and sticky chicken, which is thrown back in the skillet with hot sauce just before serving.

Wells did not go into details about Plan A. “Not enough time,” he said at our meeting. But he expressed gratitude to the bike community at large, which he described as supportive of his project. Bike groups are also active in Black Lives Matter organizing: There have been three 800-person Ride for Black Lives through Greater Boston, organized in part by Crimson BikesBoston Bike PartyBikes Not Bombs and Spoke House, at a time organizers would not risk more casual rides. U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley kicked off the ride this past Sunday; there are also weekly MIT-to-Arlington Black Lives Matter rides on Sundays.

The project and scope of the Give Back venture is sure to grow. On Sunday, the program hosts a barbecue at Greene-Rose Heritage Park on Harvard Street near the Fletcher Maynard School. The flyer lists family-friendly scavenger hunts, voter registration and free food.

Is it safe to see a film in a theater?

2 Sep

Kendall Square Cinemas has reopened quietly, with fare such as ‘Tenet’ for up to 25 in theater

By Tom Meek
Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Two weeks ago, I penned a column about movie screens staying dark in Cambridge and Somerville because of the pandemic, even as AMC, ShowPlace Icon and other theater chains opened in and around Boston. Friday that all changed: the Landmark theater in Kendall Square had something of a stealth opening.

“Face masks at all times, limited seating and no concessions at this time, per state guidelines,” theater manager Howie Sandler said in an email. “Also we are cleaning throughout the day, and after each show we wipe down chairs. We have signs up all over the place stipulating masks and social distancing, and we have markers on the floor leading you to buy tickets.” (State guidelines actually allow prepackaged foods.)

The limited seating measures including every other row being blocked off in the bigger theaters, “and we ask folks to leave two chairs between them and another party. Smaller theaters have seats blocked off in each row to spread people out,” Sandler said. A maximum 25 people are allowed in the larger theaters, and 16 to 24 people in Kendall Square Cinemas’ three smaller ones.

For now, The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square remains closed to public screenings but is available for private rentals – most of which have been to couples, according to the “Brattle Film Podcast.” Apple Cinemas in Fresh Pond also remains closed, like the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square and Harvard Film Archive.

The Kendall Square theater is playing traditional arthouse fare such as “The Personal History of David Copperfield” and “Tesla,” but also Charlie Kaufman’s latest “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which caught me by surprise, as my press kit says it’s coming to Netflix on Sept. 4. What’s also interesting is that this week Landmark will open “Tenet,” the latest big-screen extravaganza from Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk,” “Inception”). It’s a shift for Landmark, though its sister theater Embassy Cinema in Waltham plays more mainstream box office fare.

Nolan’s film has been a sore point for critics; many say they won’t go to a theater yet and prefer to get screener links. No links were given out for “Tenet,” so if you didn’t go to theater-staged press screening, you did not see it. Some media outlets (including The Washington Post) won’t run reviews for theater-only releases; others (including The Boston Globe) that get screener links for theater-only releases will post a safety caveat. I’m still struggling with the “Do I review a film in the confines of my house and recommend it to you when you can only see it in the theater” conundrum. I missed the “Tenet” press screening due to a personal conflict, so if you see a review here from me, you’ll know I went to the theater just as you would. I have to say Sandler’s precautions at Kendall sound thorough – but it’s still an indoor space.

In response to this whole Covid-19, get-back-to-normal limbo, studios take different approaches. “Bill & Ted Face the Music” was released simultaneously theatrically and through online streaming (for $20). The live-action “Mulan” from Disney will be released this weekend on the conglomerate’s streaming platform Disney+ for $30.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

2 Sep

‘Bill & Ted Face the Music’: Passage of real time adds wives and daughters to dudes’ partying on

By Tom Meek

As AMC and other theaters begin to slowly reopen (none in Camberville except for Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinemas, which opened stealthily Friday) studios are hedging their bets by releasing in theaters and on streaming platforms. “Mulan” is coming to you next week from Disney for nearly $30 plus the cost of a Disney+ subscription, and if that feels eye-popping, consider that you can show it to the whole family. In this racket we normally have press screenings in a theater or the studio sends us a screening link, but for “Bill & Ted Face the Music” I missed the boat and so went the path we all must go, shelling out $20 to rent the third installment of this dude-ly trilogy.

Written by the original’s screenwriters, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, and directed by Dean Parisot (“Galaxy Quest’’), time has not been all that kind to Bill Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore’’ Logan (Keanu Reeves). They married and have daughters, but their dreams of being big-time rock stars have fallen by the wayside. Something of an abandoned strip mall overgrown with weeds, is how one might describe it after drinking in their performance at a wedding party. So how do the lads – er, dads – get back into the time-hopping phone booth? Someone called The Great Leader (Holland Taylor) in the future sends back her daughter (Kristen Schaal) to give them a wakeup call, and for good measure, there’s a freaky ’bot (Anthony Carrigan) who’s something of a cross between the Terminator and Tin Man. The quest this time around is to come up with the one song that can unite the planet – a quest that would seem like a platitude if it were not for the time – and ultimately save the universe. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Jimi Hendrix (DazMann Still) and Louis Armstrong (Jeremiah Craft) work their way into the plot, but the best is when Bill and Ted run into past and future versions of themselves, with the best being the version of themselves inside a prison yard. The wives (Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays) are off in their own phone booth on their own adventure (the couples therapy scene is droll and hilarious) as are the daughters, Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving). George Carlin makes a digital appearance and the ageless William Sadler is back as the Grim Reaper. Yes, a trip to Hell is mandatory.

Is seeing the first two chapters – “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991) – a requirement? No, “Face the Music” works on its own well enough, with just a few references and gags that may be lost without the homework. Reeves and Winters do an effective job of remaining excitably dude-ish while being dad-ly. The nice revelation here are Lundy-Paine and Weaving as the dudes’ daughters; in mannerism and inflection, even style and attire, they’re chips off the old block. You can tell they’ve watched the two prior episodes forward and back ad infinitum. If this is the end of the dudes’ run, you can see them picking up the reins and having their own dudette adventures. As for paying $20 (you can own it for $25) it’s a coin toss for me as a solo watcher. Now, if I was doing a series watchathon with family or friends, and enjoying a beer or two? Most Excellent!