Archive | June, 2021

F9: The Fast Saga

25 Jun

‘F9: The Fast Saga’ blasts seat-rattling overload with downshifts to a star-studded family drama

By Tom Meek Thursday, June 24, 2021

Less is more, except when it comes to vaccinations, your bank account and movies about jacked dudes driving muscle cars. Hard to believe this living-on-longer-than-it-should franchise about car jockeys doubling as covert agents has made it to “F9: The Fast Saga,” a cheekily oxymoronic title for a series taking on the endurance aspects of Le Mans. It also proves false, as more and more characters and famous mugs are folded into the mix and others are resurrected from chapters that barely made the grade (hello, “Tokyo Drift”). It’s a long drag, lasting more than two hours, that with all its world-hopping feels like the checkered flag is always around the next bend. Even the seat-rattling sensory overload of jittery dash-cam footage, hyperkinetic cutting and all the crash-booms that litter the screen tend to weaken over time. As we should know by now, much of the magic and mayhem is done on green screen, given whoosh and life by an army of CGI coders in Canada, and the ease of turning a key so effortlessly to produce car crash wonderment feels like a cheat. One laments losing the gritty authenticity of old-school stunt work and keen editing of Willam Friedkin’s “The French Connection” (1971) and his day-glo neo-noir “To Live and Die in LA” (1985), real-time car chase capers that will never be replicated – though “Drive” (2011) made a respectable go at it.

It’s not that I had a bad time at “F9,” which puts original “F&F” director Justin Lin back in the driver’s seat, or harbor a serious distaste for the series. I just wish it could be a notch sharper and more entertaining. (And can we please banish the line “Let’s do this” and the like?) The whole ka-bang, kaboom is driven by a MacGuffin: a DNA-coded device called “Aries” that allows its possessor to access and control all computer code in the universe. Russian trolls and Bond villains would literally die for it; here it’s a foppish Euro psycho named Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) and an army of faceless commandos in helmets and black Kevlar suits. On the side of good are heroes such as Dom (Vin Diesel) and Lefty (Michelle Rodriguez), tearing up the streets of old world Europe with retrofitted American classics – being inconspicuous ain’t a thing – to stop Aries from morphing into the mother of all computer viruses.

Diesel’s swagger and Rodriguez’s simmer have always been – and still are – the engine of the franchise, and Diesel’s brooding Dom has a massively clichéd yet winning “Rocky” thing going for him, the secret sauce to solid hack filmmaking. But it’s a perk that Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell and Charlize Theron, who had small yet entertaining parts in past episodes, pop up in small bits (Theron, sporting a modish bowl cut, gets to get her vamp on with a dose of camp), while local guy and WWE sensation John Cena shows up as Dom’s baby bro with a dark past, seemingly revving his engine for the opposite side of justice. On paper, the brotherly rivalry has the trappings of a Shakespearean tragedy; in execution, no matter how hard the filmmakers and actors try, the pathos feels like another green screen trick of the light.

Reaching for new highs, the stunts and FX often lurch into hyperbole – there’s a Pontiac Fiero with a jet rocket strapped to its roof – but that becomes one of the charms of “F9,” which doesn’t take itself too seriously. (That scene in the Fiero with Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris is a good example.) Challenging Lin’s pacing is the ton of backstories that need to be told, the most interesting of which is that of young Dom (Vinnie Bennett, impressive) and his brother’s early woes. The film, however, only really moves at two speeds, and it’s a bit unsettling to go from a quiet reveal to Michael Bay-esque barrages of bombast without any shifting of gears. To that end, “F9,” like a Bay flick, is perfectly packaged box office bait, joyous popcorn junk that should drive folks back to theaters after long Covid shutdowns

Empowerment Mural Coming to the Square

25 Jun

Thaxton’s ‘Beauty of Everyday Living’ mural brightens Harvard Square kiosk construction

By Tom Meek Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Patricia Thaxton’s “The Beauty of Everyday Living” mural sections will beautify a Harvard Square construction site. (Photo: Greg Cook)

The ongoing construction around the old Out of Town News kiosk in Harvard Square will be brightened this week, with unsightly fencing and Jersey barriers wrapped in a vinyl scrim of artist Patricia Thaxton’s “The Beauty of Everyday Living,” a mural imbued with themes of Black joy and empowerment. The design honors Black Harvard students, is peppered with Harvard Square “Easter eggs” and weaves in nods to Cambridge community festivals and recent Black Lives Matter protests.

The mural, commissioned by the city, will expand as work by WES Construction expands in the fall. When the expected two years of construction ends, the renovated public space will have a community focus and is open to use by city-sponsored operators. Requests for proposals are ongoing throughout the rebuild.

A public event introducing the art awaits a clearer schedule from the construction contractor and coordination with the city’s reopening plans, Cambridge Arts’ Greg Cook said.

This is the first public art project for Thaxton, a Stoughton resident who grew up in Dorchester and taught home economics in Boston Public Schools until retiring in 2009. In her art career since, she has focused on mixed media works in which she said “no material is off limits.”

“I love the freedom I have with mixed media collage. Along my journey, I discovered the elements that fascinate me: texture, color and depth connect each work of art in my collection. Several pieces were inspired by images I’ve collected from newspapers, ads, magazines and photos that I’ve taken through the ages. I enjoy capturing the culture within and around our daily lives,” she said.

The Somerville Theatre will be back

25 Jun

Somerville Theatre will bring Davis more music with Crystal Ballroom replacing upstairs screens

By Tom Meek Sunday, June 20, 2021

Frame One is building the Crystal Ballroom at Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The pandemic had its own victims in the film business, with the ShowPlace Icon and the ArcLight – luxe theaters that opened just before the pandemic in the Boston area – shuttered for good. On the upside, the Coolidge Corner Theatre just announced an expansion that includes two new screening rooms and a community space, and all Cambridge theaters have reopened or are about to. So what’s going on with the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square? The Capitol Theatre in Arlington, also owned and run by Frame One Theatres, has been up and running for a few weeks, but the Somerville cine, host to screenings and live performances since 1914, remains ominously dark.

“We’re undergoing renovations and a changeover,” theater manager and newly minted creative director Ian Judge said during a recent visit to the iconic structure. The lobby is in the middle of a refurbishing; the bar is now set back, and the concession and merchandise area has been expanded. That far too “homey” bathroom just off the lobby is getting a much needed makeover. The biggest change is upstairs, where two movie houses are being returned to their original ballroom format.

Ian Judge will oversee the Somerville Theatre cinema and its new performance space. (Photo: Tom Meek)

What that means is that the theater will now host a nearly 500-person-capacity performance hall dedicated to live music, special events and private engagements such as weddings and corporate gatherings. “We had remodeled the downstairs theaters and knew we had to do something with the upstairs,” Judge said. With the pandemic and six screens in Arlington (and potentially two more coming in Harvard Square), Frame One decided it could fill different needs.

The new/old hall has an airy amphitheater-like vibe and a space that could be turned into a cozy bar in the back, with a coatroom to boot. Judge said the room could also be used for special screenings, which is good news for Independent Film Festival Boston, but likely never would be opened as just a public bar. (“I could see us doing something like trivia nights,” Judge said.) The main focus will be booking music acts, something Davis Square has lagged in since the amps went silent at Johnny D’s back in 2016. The space, which was known as the Hobbs Crystal Ballroom back in the day – it’s in the Hobbs Building – will now be the Crystal Ballroom at Somerville Theatre. Its capacity will be far greater than the 300-plus that Johnny D’s seated, just short of the 525-person hall The Sinclair offers in Harvard Square. The main downstairs theater, which has a capacity of almost 900, will continue its mixed-use operation as a cinema and live performance venue. The new configuration will have two entrances for each space.

The Somerville Theatre lobby is getting a touchup as well. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Judge, who had been furloughed for a year, will oversee the cinema and the new ballroom, while longtime staffer Peter Mattchen will take on day-to-day general manager duties. The Crystal Ballroom is expected to open in the early fall; opening for the three movie screens should be mid- to late summer with, Judge said, a new ability to show 4K films and a re-honed focus on 70mm exhibition; the Somerville and Coolidge are two of few theaters in the United States equipped to exhibit the classic, grand format. Frame One’s involvement in a plan for two Harvard Square movie houses (replacing a cinema that went dark in 2012) continues, though the project is stalled.

In the Heights

12 Jun

‘In the Heights’: Movie with a song in its heart

By Tom Meek

Before there was “Hamilton,” the hottest ticket on Broadway in decades, there was “In the Heights,” the musical by “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes about a hot summer tear through the streets of Washington Heights, where music and dreams drive the pulse of the multifaceted Latinx community. Here in the hands of “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) director John M. Chu, that Tony Award-winning play takes on a kinetic yet intimate feel as crowds break into song or have dance or rap-offs.

The script, written by Hudes (the stage musical was based on her book), homes in on two young couples or couples-to-be, or not. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, “Hamilton” and “A Star Is Born”) runs a bodega called Little Dream and has a crush on regular Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, Showtime’s “Vida”), but is apprehensive about making a move on her, as she’s in the process of quitting her beauty salon job to move uptown and become a fashion designer. Usnavi’s Greek chorus of regulars and friends egg him on or console him in the wake of each romantic misfire. More complicated and germane is Nina (Leslie Grace) back home from Stanford, which her dad (Jimmy Smits), a car service repair shop owner, sacrificed so much to send her to. She doesn’t want to return – to tell why would ruin the story, but the reason ushers in a conversation about race and dreamers – and has a burgeoning relationship with Benny (Corey Hawkins, “Straight Outta Compton” and “BlacKKKlansman”), a radio dispatcher at dad’s shop.

For the most part “In the Heights” is a whirlwind of music, dance and emotional undulations, in which dashed opportunities are always left with a modicum of hope. Chu keeps it all clicking along with the snappiness of a “La La Land” (2016), yet the quiet pauses with Nina and her dad and Usnavi (played on stage by Miranda) and his posse have their own interior pulse and reverberations. Zesty and light, yet deep and meaningful, Miranda’s love letter to an immigrant-based community is heartfelt; and with Chu at the controls and a talented cast whose dancing, acting and singing is pitch-perfect all the way through, “in the Heights” is going to move you.