Archive | November, 2020

Sound of Metal

23 Nov

‘Sound of Metal’: Drummer loses his hearing, showing him more than expected on healing

By Tom Meek
Friday, November 20, 2020

“Sound of Metal” kicks off with a raw punk rock performance in a small club. The camera hangs on the band’s drummer, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), smacking the skins silly as the lead singer, a snarling, red-maned chanteuse named Lou (Olivia Cooke), growls indecipherable lyrics at the crowd. It’s a punchy, tight focus you want more of, but Darius Marder’s feature debut (he was the writer of “The Place Beyond the Pines”) switches gears as it dives into a more audibly serene world where the turmoil is deeper and you can’t simply power your way through.

Ahmed, the rapper-turned-actor so good in supporting roles in “The Sisters Brothers” (2018) and “Jason Bourne” (2016), gets his front and center here. His Ruben and his bandmate/significant other cruise around in a shiny RV playing gigs until one day Ruben can’t hear so well. He’s also been a user; at an impasse to perform, at Lou’s behest it’s off to a rehab facility for deaf addicts. It’s at the farmhouse enclave that Ruben hits another major snag: The facility’s sermoning leader (Paul Raci, whose parents were deaf) wants to teach Reuben to be deaf and proud, while Ruben keeps hoping for some type of cure or treatment as a way back. Lou, meanwhile, is slipping quietly away, involved with other bands.

The film was shot mostly here, on the North Shore, and has that same somber, gritty texture that “Manchester by the Sea” (2016) registered. Part of that is Marder’s ingenious use of sound from Reuben’s POV. Of course the film is all Ahmed, whose wide eyes and creased brow tell a different story than the polite, calm words rolling out of Ruben’s mouth. His scenes with Lou and Raci’s hippie guru as he deals with loss and uncertainty are raw and electric. The acting all around is so good, I’d have to jump back to “The Trial of the Chicago 7” for something on par, but “Sound of Metal” goes to a far more universally and emotionally raw place. Even a big movement such as a quick trip to Paris to see Lou’s father (Mathieu Amalric, from “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) doesn’t feel big. Lou’s Edith Piaf-esque performance at a piano concerto is riveting, as are the final few moments, guided adroitly by Marder, when Reuben undergoes a life-changing epiphany. You can hear every ache in the sound of silence.

Racism hits local restaurant

23 Nov

Urban Hearth’s outdoor John Lewis mural vandalized Monday in ‘obvious hate crime’

By Tom Meek
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

It’s been tough for restaurants recently with shortened hours, colder temperatures and perhaps another shutdown looming. Adding to the woes for Urban Hearth, the young nouvelle can-do north of Porter Square on Massachusetts Avenue, was an act of vandalism Monday that owner and chef Erin Miller described as “an obvious hate crime.”

“I’m absolutely gutted,” Miller said. The eatery’s cozy sidewalk pavilion, which I visited for a meal in August, had been since adorned by a mural enshrining recently passed civil rights icon and longtime Georgian lawmaker John Lewis, the subject of the 2020 documentary “Good Trouble.” The full-length alfresco design by local artist Rocky Cotard, commissioned by Miller and finished in early October, was marred by black spray paint in the middle of the night. To get to the images, the vandals had to get past dense pilings of furniture.

“Do not turn away from this … It is a violation of all that is decent, good and hopeful in our world,”Miller said online.

Miller said the police were beginning an investigation; it was unclear if there were cameras nearby that might have video helpful in the matter.

On Wednesday, police said several businesses in the 2200-2300 block of Massachusetts Avenue had been vandalized late Monday or early Tuesday, suggesting the vandalism was not exclusively targeted at the mural. Detectives are following up and looking for video evidence, said Jeremy Warnick, director of communications and media relations for Cambridge police.

While the Hearth has shut down the patio temporarily, the restaurant remains open for takeout.

The Climb

17 Nov

‘The Climb’: Clever twists along trail of bike ride where soon-to-married bud really feels the burn

By Tom Meek
Thursday, November 12, 2020

If “The Climb” were a pop song, it would be a spin on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”; call it “Bad Bromance.” The dark, witty indie gem begins with the event of the title, a long bike climb through the hills of France as one buddy Mike (director, co-writer Michael Angelo Covino) gives climb and cadence instructions to bestie Kyle (co-writer Kyle Marvin) as they ascend the seeming endless rise. Between the wheezing and puffing we learn that Kyle’s about to be married, and the endurance undertaking is the bachelor bonding event du jour. Then Mike lets out the sucker punch that he’s slept with Kyle’s fiancee – multiple times. “I’m going to kill you!” Kyle huffs, unable to catch up to the object of his ire. “I know; that’s why I told you on a hill,” retorts Mike without care or fear.

With friends like that, who needs enemies, right? Mike and Kyle end up in a French hospital for reasons other than what you’d imagine, where Kyle’s to-be shows up and things really get skewed. Like the cagey recent thriller “Let Him Go” there’s a sudden pivot to a major life event. You expect it to be a funeral or a wedding (I’m not going to tell you which), but you drop into the opposite. “The Climb,” which begins with a masterful long shot by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, feels contained in location and time, but then the action goes stateside – Upstate New York, to be exact – and spans years. Mike’s something of an alcoholic mess, while nice guy Kyle has moved on and found another mate to marry (Gayle Rankin, also quite good in “Blow the Man Down”). It’s Kyle’s meddlesome mom (Talia Balsam, while George Wendt of “Cheers” plays dad) who draws Mike back into the fold, and sure enough, with another fiancee in the wings, history looks to repeat itself.

There’s not a lot of action in “The Climb.” It’s a character study of just how far one friend can push another. Remember just how much fun it was to wince and smile at the insanely descriptive tactics of Thomas Hayden Church in “Sideways” (2004)? Same here. We never even really find out what Mike or Kyle do for a living – it’s besides the point. The film’s competently made and droll; you can tell these two spent many a nights penning and rehearsing the material together, and given the names are what they are, you wonder where the characters begin and the real Mike and Kyle leave off. “The Climb” is a quick, nasty burn with some clever twists. Some might even find it life-affirming. I’m not sure I did, but I’m curious to see what this tandem comes up with next. 


17 Nov

‘Ammonite’: Paleontologist dig on the coast turns up something bigger that’s been buried

By Tom Meek
Thursday, November 12, 2020

Period pieces are often slow builds of quiet, repressed inner turmoil, in which women find themselves subjugated to dour social mores that hold them tamped conveniently down, simmering and waiting to explode. Many erupt in the form of a sexual awakening (mostly taboo) with participants fighting through bloomers, long johns and other impediments to reach their communal ecstasy – there’s so much to get through one has to wonder if the task of unwrapping is not a killjoy.

Can one imagine a slower build or anything less sexy than a paleontological expedition to ignite one’s rebellion and passion? That’s what lies at the heart of Francis Lee’s “Ammonite,” a tale of two real-life souls, not knowing it at first, but in desperate need of a human connection. The main is Mary Anning, played by Kate Winslet, an amateur scientist who became a world-renowned paleontologist for her discovery of a complete ichthyosaur skeleton in the Jurassic-rich seaside cliffs of Lyme Regis, England, in the mid 1800s. Mary, sooty and a scowl ever etched upon her face, lives with her curmudgeonly mother (Gemma Jones), who seems void of any form of a matronly bone. It’s not the happiest of existences, but Mary has her cliffs, her picks and brushes, and late-night dates dusting her way to her next big discovery.

Her notoriety elicits the attentions of  Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a well-off businessman, geologist and dinosaur enthusiast who wants to, for a good fee, shadow Mary on her daily treks and afternoon scratching-and-classification sessions. In tow is his young bride, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), recently traumatized by a miscarriage. Roderick is hardly there at all when he announces bigger matters require him overseas, but that the sea air should be good for Charlotte. He checks her into a swank seaside hotel before departing. The coast of county Dorset is impressive, but, as shown, it’s forever shrouded in gray mist, hardly the place to educe joy from a depressed soul. Mary, in countenance and demeanor, is a reflection of the landscape she scours. Charlotte tags along some with Mary. In one scene Mary pulls up her bloomers, urinates and, barely wiping her hands, breaks off a piece from a loaf of bread and offers it to Charlotte.

This is late in the film, and by this time one might wonder where this is all going. Charlotte, after saltwater exposure, gets deathly ill, and it’s Mary who takes on the task of nurturing her back. It’s a long road, and there’s little connection between the women at first except the sisterhood of living in a chauvinistic world; but as Charlotte begins her climb out, other connections and human needs bloom. Lee, who made his mark with “God’s Own Country” (2017) about men in love, knows how to navigate this territory carefully, and when the two finally give in, it’s raw, primal and edgily erotic.  

The key to Lee’s success here, however, is his casting. These are two of the most interesting actresses of our time. Between them they have 10 Best Actress Oscar nods. Winslet has had long-running success from “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) to “Titanic” (1997) and later “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) and “The Reader” (2008, an Oscar win), while Ronan, who burst onto the scene in “Atonement” (2007), has also compiled a diverse CV with such varied works as playing Greta Gerwig’s alter ego in “Lady Bird” (2017) and as a genetically engineered military weapon in “Hanna” (2011). “Ammonite” undoubtedly will garner comparisons to Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lay on Fire” (2019) and rightly so – same loose time, geographical area and restrictive social collars on women, where their happiness is not a dinner table conversation. No, for the passionate and the brave, it happens in the shadows. How that concludes in Lee’s rendering leaves fodder for pondering, and will likely send you to Google to learn more about Ms. Anning and Mrs. Murchison.

Let Him Go

12 Nov

‘Let Him Go’: The grandparents have concerns, and the weaponry needed to see them through

By Tom Meek
Friday, November 6, 2020

Writer-director Thomas Bezucha rekindles the essence of a B-noir potboiler with the fast, efficient and lean in execution “Let Him Go,” based on Larry Watson’s novel, which gets a big boost from some knockout performances – in the end, the main reason to see the film.

Those smart castings include Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Margaret and George Blackledge, salt of the earth souls running a horse farm in 1960s Montana. The actors were paired before as Clark Kent’s earthbound parents in “Man of Steel” (2013), and were about the best thing in Zach Snyder’s Superman reboot. Here they’re just as good, and in good company. Costner’s George is a former lawman, and the golden-age couple live an idyllic existence until their son (Ryan Bruce) dies in an accident, leaving behind his wife Lorna (Kayli Carter) and their infant grandson, Jimmy. Lorna shortly thereafter remarries a handsome outsider named Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain); one day passing through the center of town, Margaret spies the young man slapping Lorna and the boy around. The next day the young couple and child have vanished, leading Margaret to implore George to use his connections to locate their vulnerable grandchild.

All roads lead to North Dakota, where Donnie, Lorna and Jimmy have settled in with the Weboy clan (laugh all you want about the name, this group is no laughing matter) under the iron rule of Blanche (Leslie Manville), a fierce momma grizzly lording over Donnie and his three brothers. “The Big Valley” this is not. Manville, so good and Oscar nominated for her turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” (2017), is even more malevolent and imposing here. The sideways invite to the Weboy ranch for pork chops and the creepy car ride out there puts Margaret on edge, and eating those chops with Donnie’s hyena-faced brothers (including one played by Jeffrey Donovan, another standout in a small part) is an uncomfortable affair. The Blackledges get to see little Jimmy for only five minutes. Not to give too much away, but tensions escalate, wicked Blanche fosters a call to arms and things get bloody. The local law – clearly Weboy-owned – won’t help, and so Margaret and George, beaten down and outgunned, dig deep to extricate their boy’s boy from an abusive environment. Think of the siege in “Straw Dogs” (1974), with two strong matriarchs going at it. There’s nothing surprising; just same damn fine acting and the fear of god Manville’s Blanche leaves ingrained in the viewer’s mind.

City Hall

5 Nov

Cambridge documentarian Frederick Wiseman turns his camera on Boston for a sprawling four-hour immersive portrait of the city.

Tom Meek for the Patriot Ledger
November 3, 20202

For his 45th documentary feature Frederick Wiseman trains his lens on his native Boston to record all things municipal unfolding in the cement encased corridors of Gerhard Kallmann’s infamous Brutalist facade. The retrospective of how we operate and function in the Hub is an engrossing four-and-half-hour watch (yes, you heard that right) that amazingly goes by in a blip and serves as something of an eerie — and taunting — time capsule. Shot during 2018 and 2019, one segment has Mayor Marty Walsh and authorities preparing for the Wold Champion Red Sox Duck Boat celebration. Later we see fans chanting “Mookie, Mookie, Mookie.” Betts famously left us in 2019 and recently performed his heroics in the 2020 World Series for that team we vanquished in 2018 (the L.A. Dodgers), and all that Wiseman’s camera captures, strangely feels from another era as the city bustles in pre-COVID normalcy — one can only imagine what a 2020-2021 version of “City Hall” might look like.

The Government Center delve unfolds in a series of chapter-esque meanders between the micro and macro with plenty of shots of Boston’s iconic skyline and landmarks to root you. The rendering should make plenty of Beantowners proud and Walsh, seemingly ever aware of the camera, comes off crisp, progressive and inclusive — a shining illumination that may pose something of an extra hurdle for upcoming challenger Michelle Wu and others. In Wiseman’s classic observant, cinema verite style (fly-on-the-wall) there are several long takes of municipal proceedings such as the budget review where presenters effusively tout the investment in infrastructure as a win-win because it not only betters the community, but also makes the city’s debt more appealing to bond investors. It’s a cut-and-dry matter that under Wiseman’s eye is more interesting and accessible than it sounds, but “City Hall’ is most affecting when following the day-to-day operations of front liners, namely the 311 help center workers trying to iron out neighborhood issues or city magistrates mitigating parking tickets — an anxious expecting father who parked in front of a hydrant and an incredulous old-schooler who didn’t know there was resident parking along Congress Street — and then there are those out in the community removing trash and providing subsidized veterinary care.

What’s truly amazing to note too is that Wiseman, at the age of 90, is still cranking out documentaries on a near annual basis and does all the editing to boot. For those not familiar with the works of the Academy Award honored documentarian, a law professor at BU and Brandeis before picking up the camera, they’re slice of life exposés that quietly drink in their subjects without question, preface or prod the way you might get from a Michael Moore (“Roger & Me,” or “Fahrenheit 9/11″) or Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”). The result conjures an uncanny sense of intimacy; there’s no barrier, you are organically and viscerally part of the scene. “City Hall” in scope and focus feels like a natural addition to the the director’s unofficial community series that began with “Aspen” (1991) and includes “Belfast, Maine” (1999)” and “Jackson Heights” (2015). Must see Wiseman films in my not-so-humble opinion are “Boxing Gym” (2010) and his controversial first film, “Titicut Follies” (1967) about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which, because of its graphic nature, was banned from being shown in Massachusetts until the early 1990s.

The most moving and telling scenes in “City Hall” are those steeped in earnest reveals and communal conflict. Talking to veterans afflicted by addiction and PTSD, Walsh shares candidly his dark days as an alcoholic. The connection both onscreen and in the room is immediate and palpable, something that doesn’t quite register as much when Walsh underscores his Irish heritage as a bridge to a Latino community. Then there’s the Thanksgiving feast for those challenged by Down syndrome and similar arresting disorders where Walsh and crew dutifully serve expectant diners and cap it all off with dancing. Wiseman never lets his lens sway you, but if you don’t have a bittersweet bump inside you, you probably didn’t flinch when Old Yeller died. The big rub in the film comes during a community outreach meeting run by a predominately Asian coalition of businessmen seeking to institute a recreational cannabis facility in a predominately Black and brown section of Dorchester. The two sides talk at each other, the rhetoric’s tinged with the annoyance of not being heard and there’s the clear fear of being taken advantage of, with the city and the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission — who are not in the room — taking the brunt of the shots. It’s a telling back and forth that raises the question of equitable economic development and how to earnestly empower a community in the process without gutting them.

One of the things that makes Wiseman’s films so captivating is the sense of cadence and human rhythm he imbues them with. “Boxing Gym” and his 2009 ballet troupe portrait “La danse” are driven by repetition and pursuit of form. In “City Hall” there are mesmerizing long takes of mattresses and barbecue grills being obliterated and compacted by a garbage truck’s compressor and long spindly tree limbs are methodically pulled in and consumed by a restless wood shredder — activities quite mundane and everyday, that in Wiseman’s purview magically become hypnotic wonderments. Also too, Wiseman’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer John Davey artfully finds Escher-esque motifs and reflections within reflections amid our familiar facades. His upward angled framings cut aesthetic portraits of old Scollay Square and the bland Saltonstall building in ways one might not have imagined possible. “City Hall” in the end, is a dutiful reflection of who we are, where we came from and a piquant insider look into the vast municipal neural net that keeps us humming as a community.