Archive | February, 2021

Casablanca, Hill of Beans

28 Feb

Books: Here’s looking at ‘Casablanca,’ with author Leslie Epstein

By Tom MeekFor The Patriot

This Monday, Leslie Epstein the longtime Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, debuts his latest work of fiction, “Hill of Beans: A Novel of War and Celluloid,” which like several of Epstein’s books weaves history and real life characters seamlessly into the fabric of fiction with a typical tight focus on the evils of the Holocaust and its repercussions across time. 

Epstein’s release party will be a free and virtual affair put on by the Brookline Booksmith at 7 p.m. Monday. The conversation will be hosted by writer/film critic A.S. Hamrah.

At the epicenter of “Hill of Beans” is Jack Warner — yes, one of THE Warner Brothers — and his epic struggle to get the film “Casablanca” made and exhibited to the world in a strategically timely and specific fashion. As the teaser tags it, “He has an impossible goal: to make the 1942 invasion of North Africa by British and American forces coincide with the film’s release.” That 1942 Warners classic about WWII refugees stranded in Morocco starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and peppered with massively quotable lines — and an eternal Valentine’s Day offering at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square — was written by Epstein’s father, Phillip and his uncle Julius (along with Howard Koch, adapting Murray Burnett’s stage play). The brothers Epstein (twins mind you and an important plot point later in the book) factor into Epstein’s novel that both celebrates and digs into the not so pretty underbelly of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Told from multiple points of views, the book has a bit of Rothian swagger to it, as well as devious wit, deft humor and hard truths; Hitler, Stalin and Goebbels all get to express themselves in their own voices.

That’s a pretty unholy trio of historically reviled icons.  Churchill and Patton join the mix as does the infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and many of Hollywood’s top personalities — Bugs Bunny included. No matter, Epstein hangs it all on his protagonist who he sees as a complicated man and potential stumbling block for readers,  “He was a  swaggering  male misogynist  and a racist, an all too typical figure of Hollywood and America of the 1930s and 40s, which may be a problem for the book, but he has so much exuberance and confidence and so much skill, I just fell in love with him.”https://8937e0d70ab4c2ceeec03fce0fd1533f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

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I Care a Lot

27 Feb

‘I Care a Lot’: Trying to scam the wrong senior? You realize, of course, that this means war

By Tom MeekFriday, February 26, 2021

“Playing fair is a joke invented by rich people to keep the rest of us poor” – a quote that might ring true if it was about racial inequality, leveling the playing field or creating opportunity for those normally denied. But in “I Care a Lot” it’s from the lips of a corporate Karen who dupes the elderly on the cusp of dementia out of their amassed wealth for her own gain. Yeah, that’s right: Taking advantage of memory challenged seniors so as to fleece your own pockets. The badass “lioness” here, Marla Grayson, is played by Rosamund Pike, who makes the unpalatable role of shameless predator semi-digestible as the caregiver with a swank office of minions who slides into any court hearing about a rich elderly person who may become a ward of the state and sweeps their care under her wing. Then she gets them locked up and drugged up she can liquidate their assets.

Happy days for the elderly and those boxed out who may care for them this is not, but writer/director J Blakeson, channeling David Fincher (who did “Gone Girl” with Pike) musically and in agile editing style, keeps the unlikeable audacity clicking and infectious. It’s something of a cinematic bag of Doritos: The universe says it’s bad for you, you know it’s bad for you and yet you’re all in. How many times has the POV of a serial killer ever worked? (“Dexter,” “Hannibal”?) 

Grayson catches a snag when she targets Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) whose son (Peter Dinklage) is Russian mob connected. You’d think that would be a big cup of no-thank-you-tea, but Grayson doubles down and, as the film wants you to have it, becomes the victim. It’s a ruse that never sticks, considering the countless seniors duped, bilked and bled, left on the shores of nowhere and certain oblivion. We never see that, and Pike’s edgy, engaging performance obscures this into a slick, twisting thriller – and it is slick – but at the heart is a victimization that goes beyond unconscionable. Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in “Basic Instinct” (1992) feels like a blueprint for Pike’s Grayson, but Tramell was a lioness hunting bull rhinoceroses in their prime; Grayson is an opportunistic hyena sourcing wounded old birds. 

Nomadland

22 Feb

‘Nomadland’: Traveling stoically from job to job, and sometimes it’s cold and the van breaks down

By Tom MeekThursday, February 18, 2021

The films of Chloé Zhao, a short list that is certain to grow, are something else – a unique blend of narrative fiction and docudrama reenactments in which real folks play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, if not just themselves. This kind of filmmaking went disastrously off track for Clint Eastwood in 2018 when he cast the U.S. tourists who thwarted a terrorist attack on a French train as themselves in “The 15:17 to Paris.” Neat idea, but the result was inert, nearly unwatchable. And yes, Jackie Robinson played himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), but Zhao in her somber wonderment “The Rider” (2018) cast Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn, a horse trainer from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota who, because of a giant scar across of his noggin, is told he can’t ride a horse for fear he’ll take another toss and die. Guess what? Jandreau really has that scar and lived that life that Zhao recreates from the inside out, and that’s the allure of Zhao’s craftsmanship; she’s able to capture that, from the union between man and land to the quiet, tumultuous struggles within.

Here Zhao has added to her stock, inserting a Hollywood A-lister into the mix of regular folk. Frances McDormand, however, is not your typical A-lister, ever amiable and humble in comport, but she is top tier – of that we need to be clear, lest you want to have a backyard scrap. Sporting short cropped hair, McDormand plays Fern, a semi-recently single middle-aged woman cruising the northern plains, bouncing from one seasonal McJob to the next, cleaning toilets at a Badlands glamping site and slinging grub at a rustic lodge-type resort. It ain’t pretty, but Fern seems resigned and dutiful in her tasks. It’s a way of life that affords her freedom – I half expected The Who’s “Going Mobile” to cue up, but there are times Fern comes out from a night in her comfortably worn van wrapped in three layers of blanket and the chill is bone-rattlingly real. And then that aging van dies on her.

That’s about as complicated as “Nomadland” gets. It’s not about a grand crisis du jour, but the tao of our motorized, nomadic workers and their community. The film, like the Jessica Bruder nonfiction book it’s based on, subtitled “Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” is a meander through meanderers who were ostensibly downsized or tossed out of the ivory tower during the 2008 financial meltdown and either couldn’t find their way back or didn’t want to.

For her cast, Zhao does what she did in “The Rider”: Linda, a seasoned nomad with a thick, lustrous silver mane, is played by Linda May; and Swankie, another big-personality road warrior whom we learn has eight months to live, is played by Swankie. You get the idea. The acting by some is great at turns, but it’s not always consistent, and you realize just what you have in someone as good and capable as McDormand (she, the film and Zhao and will continue to reap accolades; the film was part of the Day’s Top 10 Films of 2020 and it won the Boston Society of Film Critics’ Best Picture and Best Director honors). We do get a beat deeper in on Fern when she stops by her sister’s house for a visit. They live very different lives, and in that short stop we learn all we need to know about Fern and where she’s going. Fern is a lonely soul, and it’s something she embraces. David Strathairn drops in as a campground worker named, well, uhmm, Dave who takes a liking to Fern – their online profiles, should they ever get back on the grid, would be a 100 percent match – but Fern holds him at bay. “I have to do laundry,” she says to a holiday invite.

The real star of the film is the Badlands and plains, so alluring and grand and framed so by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who collaborated with Zhao on “The Rider.” How “Nomadland” ends isn’t really the point; it’s about the journey and disconnected people connecting, finding solidarity in their transient way of existence. 

Judas and the Black Messiah

14 Feb

Judas and the Black Messiah’: Black Panthers attempt to change history, but it repeats itself

By Tom MeekFriday, February 12, 2021

“Judas and the Black Messiah” begins as a fairly rote history lesson – though an important one – detailing the galvanization of the Black Panther Party in Chicago in 1968 and onward in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the year’s chaotic Democratic convention (so beautifully chronicled by Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” a wild blend of real footage and staged narrative, and Aaron Sorkin’s faux follow-on, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” which came out last year).

The film, directed by Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”), is blessed with the thespian thunder and lightning punch of Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) and LaKeith Stanfield (“Sorry to Bother You”) playing 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal, Hampton’s security adviser who also happened to be an FBI informant. Hampton as depicted seems enlightened and visionary beyond his years – charismatic, powerfully eloquent in the way other iconic Black leaders of the era were, and willing to take up arms if the structures of society try to cage or emasculate a people. It’s a riveting tour de force by Kaluuya, but the film’s engine and drive comes from its Judas. King, who also penned the script, tries to cast O’Neal in a somewhat sympathetic light, more pressed by his FBI handlers (Jesse Plemons and Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover), but we also get framing footage of a 1990 interview with the real-life O’Neal (his only interview), and the character in the dramatization and the one in the archive reel don’t feel congruent. It’s not hampering to the film, which finds fire as the Panther movement builds, matched by police that employ offensive (and perhaps illegal) force to hammer it down. But it does leave the enigmatic burn of just who was Bill O’Neal, and what was his motivation?

How things sort out in history for Hampton and O’Neal is on the record, and to give those details here I believe would be to underserve the film and the viewing experience. In texture, “Judas and the Black Messiah” reminds me of Kathryn Bigelow’s dark, underappreciated 2017 unrest drama “Detroit,” in that it takes a smaller chapter of the civil rights struggle and shines a light on police audacity and social inequity. In their dramatic richness, the films help to keep those chapters in our minds, educate, revise the record and spark historical and social interest. “Judas” does all that and cements Kaluuya as an A-lister.

Malcolm & Marie

8 Feb

‘Malcolm & Marie’: Couples get in arguments, but this barn-burner gives us front-row seats

By Tom MeekSaturday, February 6, 2021

MALCOLM & MARIE (L-R): ZENDAYA as MARIE, JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON as MALCOLM. DOMINIC MILLER/NETFLIX © 2021

“Malcolm & Marie” is a he-she rat-a-tat that revolves around a couple that has just notched a new high, and as a result is on the edge of breaking apart. The entirely of the film takes place in a chic Malibu bungalow. Just how chic it is we never really know, because most of the action takes place inside (with a few artful outside-looking-in shots) and it’s night. One o’clock and onward, to be exact. We catch up with the titular couple arriving at the rented-by-the-studio digs following the premiere of his (John David Washington) film about a young female drug user’s struggle to recovery. The film’s a hit, but she (Zendaya) is the one whose life is up on screen – and she’s an actor he did not cast. Those things could float, but in his big post-party speech he fails to acknowledge her. it’s here that a bowl of mac and cheese becomes a driving wedge, and through the night the conversation ebbs and flows in tides of rage, compassion, accusation and revelation.

It’s something like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) without the second couple, though the specter of other paramours creep in (she’s cheated on him, he’s still fond of an old flame who likes cheesy motels). It’s also not as dark or compelling as that barn-burning Mike Nichols adaptation of Edward Albee’s play, though the film, written and directed by Sam Levinson – who pens the hit streaming series “Euphoria” that has rocketed Zendaya to fame – has a trio of aces to play here: the drop-dead gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Marcell Rév (who has done several projects with Levinson), his two actors (more on that in a bit) and edgy dialogue that often takes on white privilege. Given that topic, does it matter that the performers are black and writer-director Levinson is white? The answer really lies in the verisimilitude of the art. And while it’s riveting to hear Malcolm take apart a white female critic who’s paying him praise along color lines (“White-assed writer making it about race, because it’s convenient”), it feels fabricated and overly highbrow. One thing it raises is the odd, symbiotic relationship between critic and artist and the lines each draw, which most recently blew up when Casey Mulligan took exception to a Variety review of “Promising Young Woman” (2020) that she felt unfairly took shots at her credibility in the part due to her looks.

All the arguing can be entertaining, but does it feel genuine? In pieces it does, which helps the film work given the thin conceptual veneer. The performers are dead on too. It’s mostly Washington’s film, but Zendaya gets her licks in (feigning despair to prove she can act, describing how to be a better partner in a bit that feels ripped from a Spike Lee joint). Washington’s career seemed so promising after “Blackkklansman” (2018), and then he got caught up in Christopher Nolan’s time rewind riddle “Tenet” (2020), where he felt less than heroic or involved in stature and I developed some doubts about Denzel’s progeny being able to carry a film; here he’s set the record straight with range, charisma and a character conviction that shows.

By the end, “Malcom & Marie” doesn’t really move the conversation on race, relations or art. It’s two great performances on an alluring stage, but nothing feels truly at risk and nothing life-altering is revealed. This is the blueprint for the next red carpet event – one I’d want a ticket to, as well as some post-party mac and cheese with Malcolm and Marie.

Bliss

8 Feb

‘Bliss’: Wilson and Hayek simulate ‘The Matrix’

By Tom MeekFriday, February 5, 2021

Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek in “Bliss.”

Mike Cahill, the somber indie voice behind “Another Earth” (2011) where alternate realities coincided, overlapped and collided, retools the concept here with a bigger palette and broader ambition. It grips and grabs as his former film did, but the result’s not nearly as compelling. “Bliss” begins something like a Mike Judge offering (“Idiocracy,” “Office Space”) with an IT office cog gloriously named Greg (Owen Wilson) who doodles sketches of a fetching woman on some exotic veranda. The place Greg works at, Technical Difficulties, is a pressure cooker, bleeding business to cheaper, India-based call centers; needless to say, Greg’s artistic malaise doesn’t bode well with his coworkers. In short order he’s called in and terminated; but before the escorted-out-of-the-office walk of shame takes place, Greg accidentally kills his former boss, decides to cover it up (in a great tracking shot) and heads to the bar next door to steel his nerves.

It’s a grandly dark and goofy (mostly because of Wilson’s shaggy dog persona) waltz in. You’re hooked; Greg’s either liberated from the yoke of unappreciative capitalism or en route to a 10-to-life term for manslaughter. But where Cahill goes from there becomes muddled and disconcerting. At Plato’s Dive (said watering hole ) Greg is called out by a woman (Salma Hayek) sitting across the dark divide in a booth. “You’re real,” she exclaims, pointing a finger at him like she has him snared in a tractor beam. Curiosity piqued, Greg takes a seat, tunes in and over the course of a soul-nourishing scotch, the thick-haired maven (Isabel, as the film has it), operating with shamanistic authority, pops a few magic crystals and makes Greg’s office worries disappear. It’s here that we learn Greg is newly divorced, his daughter is graduating college and he’s been living in a motel somewhere around the corner. It also looks like he hasn’t washed his hair in weeks. (Some people might find the pairing of Hayek and Wilson a curious one. I did, but the Mutt and Jeff contrast abates early.)

The film bounces us to Isabel’s digs, something of a hobo encampment within the confines of the concrete channel that is the L.A. River (“I’m not homeless,” she says. “I’m living off the grid”) and pulling back the veil, the two are at a grand Riviera estate with Bill Nye in a tuxedo addressing Isabel as a doctor and professor. The two are also in grand attire, with Greg’s hair washed and blown out, and every now and then passersby are seen as glitchy computer generated images – FGPs, or Fake Generated Persons, as Isabel tells us. What’s going on? Have we jumped down some weird, sci-fi rabbit hole? Are these homeless delusions à la “The Fisher King” (1991), or some type of a psych ward or science experiment gone off the rails like “12 Monkeys” (1995)? Then there’s all the “Matrix”-esque crystals Isabel keeps popping.

The device that rooted the viewer in that stasis-dreaming-man-as-a-battery trilogy helmed by the Wachowskis and those Terry Gilliam films (and “Vanilla Sky” as well) was the reliable point of view from their unreliable protagonists: We saw only what they saw. Here Cahill has us tight in with Greg, and halfway through the film offers side vignettes of his children (interestingly, looking nothing like Greg – something that’s never really explained and doesn’t really need to be) and other POVs that jar and poke holes in the tenuous bubble he’s filled with techno/other-world mumbo-jumbo.

One of the more interesting spins is that Isabel and Greg, when jacked on crystals, can use their fingers to throw the fake people around. “You’re a telekinetic warrior,” Isabel says of Greg after he crushes a van full of harassing hoods like a tin can. But it’s somewhat unsettling to see him take a walker out from under an old woman just because of a scowling glare directed at Isabel. What begins as a social justice payback when Isabel takes out the legs of a creep copping butt grabs of yoga-panted women at a skating rink becomes something of the bar bloodlust scene Hayek was part of in “From Dusk Till Dawn” (1995). In that Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez vampire creation, it was comical and to the point; here, even given the impunity of consequence, it’s not dark or even cruel like a boy blowing up frogs with firecrackers – it just undermines the characters and the tone of the film.

Formagio Kitchen on the move

8 Feb

Cost and coronavirus complications change plan, forcing a hybrid Formaggio-Fresh Pond Market

By Tom MeekThursday, February 4, 2021

Fresh Pond Market’s 6,000 square feet at 358 Huron Ave. is being transformed into a new Formaggio. (Photo: Formaggio)

Formaggio Kitchen announced last week that it would close down its original store at 244 Huron Ave. and relocate fully to the old Fresh Pond Market locale at 358 Huron Ave., though when rescuing the closing grocery store in 2019 owners said they planned to keep both businesses.  

“Incredibly disappointed,” one poster wrote on the site Nextdoor, saying Huron Village residents expected Formaggio to run the market as it had been, as well as keeping its specialty offerings and famous cheese cave where they’ve been since 1978.

While that was the intent, the coronavirus pandemic, economic challenges and other unforeseen factors – most having to do with the reconstruction of the circa 1922 market – have forced a change, Formaggio co-owner Ihsan Gurdal said Tuesday.

A sign on the new Formaggio location shows the same product categories as at the original location up the road. (Photo: Tom Meek)

“When we tore down the walls we found structural problems. The fire department had us put in a sprinkler system. And then when Covid hit, the city shut down construction for five months – and then after, it was really hard to get people to come back,” Gurdal says. Fresh Pond Market was initially expected to reopen last spring. Now the goal for opening is March 1.

Even in the fall of 2019, the Gurdals were finding that renovation of the 6,000-square-foot space needed a gut rehab costing “more than we wanted” – that even “scared” the couple to think about. The property was listed in the millions of dollars; in addition to rehab costs, the pandemic meant months of paying rent with no progress on the work.

After 42 years, it will be a bittersweet departure from 244 Huron Ave., Gurdal said. From that address he and his wife and co-owner, Valerie, have launched three other Formaggio locations, one in the South End, one in New York City and the last where Edible Arrangements was on Hampshire Street, just outside Kendall Square. Cognizant of the neighborhood’s expectations, the owners say they look to have a blend of classic specialty food shop that has become the mini-empire’s signature, as well as the bodega-plus offerings Fresh Pond Market brought to the area for nearly 100 years. “We’ll sell dishwasher liquid, Band-Aids and other essentials,” Ihsan Gurdal says. “We’re going to listen to neighbors and their desires. We’ve been having conversation with those who provided to Fresh Pond Market.”

The Najarian brothers held off selling their family-owned market until they were satisfied they’d found the right buyer, an independent owner who would keep it a market as neighbors were used to, including a full-service butchery.

Butchery gear is ready for eventual use at the new Formaggio location. (Photo: Formaggio)

“The new place is twice as big as our current place,” he noted. “In the old place we were all on top of each other – the butcher shop staff, the bakers and then there was catering.”

That world-renowned Formaggio cheese caves also will move down the street. The subterranean expanse – a series of multi-climate chambers accommodating the environmental needs of varying European varieties – will be bigger and perhaps allow Formaggio to age its cheese organically, keeping it longer and providing customers with new and even more nuanced offerings. Customers should expect to find $10 to $15 organic wines and not just higher-end labels that have been standard at Formaggio, though not more commercial and lower-quality brands such as a Yellow Tail. “Balance” is how Gurdal describes the undertaking. “We’ll flex and bend and go with what works.” 

As to the location he’s leaving behind, Ihsan Gurdal hoped it might become something that would enliven the neighborhood, such as a restaurant or flower shop.