Archive | September, 2022


24 Sep

Ana de Armas is all-in as Marilyn

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 22, 2022

Andrew Dominik’s new spin on the legacy of Marilyn Monroe is a lurid layer cake of sex and spectacle, with occasional intimate segues into a vulnerable soul screaming for love and a safe space. “Blonde” is also a downright riveting flick from frame one until the credits roll; just how much of it is true is another issue. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ mega-paged tome, which is admittedly fictionalized, there’s threesomes, sexual assault, on-set meltdowns, daddy issues, delusions, emotional juicing and more – enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating. If you take anything from the film, it’s that Monroe, for all her accomplishments and fame, led a pretty shitty life from start to finish, thanks mostly to men who wanted to control her, own her and consume her.

There are a few reasons for the film’s engrossing success, even though it feels so opportunistic and exploitative that you want it to fail. First are the stylistic choices by Dominik, such as cutting in and out of black and white, impressive recreation of screens from Monroe classics such as “Some Like it Hot” and “Niagara,” and the hard Marilyn POV that pays off – kind of – when she’s with JFK and pumped up on sedatives by a doctor ever slinking around the edges of the set. There’s also an emotive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and, of course and most of all, Ana de Armas, who conjures Monroe effortlessly: her breathy, hazy intones and the toggle between perfect shiny object before the camera and hot troubled mess otherwise. 

The young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) as painted has daddy issues – namely that she doesn’t have one, and it becomes an affliction that eats at her over time. Later in life Marilyn refers to her husbands in wispy coos as “daddy.” It’s heavy-handed but fits right in, as men and possible father figures loom large, for the most part with unpleasant results. An early first interview at a studio with a Mr. Z (Zanuck?) comes with requisite (bent-over-the) desk sex, whether wanted or not. Then there’s the hubbies, Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), protective and sensitive until he gets fed up with Marilyn’s sex-bomb image and becomes abusive and worse, and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), in touch with Marilyn’s inner demons but inert when it comes to helping. The real kicker is JFK (Caspar Phillipson), lounging on a bed in hotel room, shirtless but in his infamous back brace, on the phone conducting presidential business. When Marilyn enters, passed on by an agent keeping watch at the suite’s open door, he gives her a series of gestures imploring oral service – the door remains open and Dominik (“Killing Them Softly,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ”) invites us to join in, dropping the camera right into the middle of the act. There’s no full frontal, but the experience is overwhelmingly visceral. Given all that came before, it’s just another indignity in the life of Ms. Monroe. The time Marilyn does find true comfort in the men’s arms, it’s an ongoing, imagined three-way romance with Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), racily rendered but also one of the movie’s more piquant and liberating tear-aways.

This isn’t the first time the inner turmoil of Marilyn has deconstructed and rewritten the script for Hollywood’s most iconic starlet. Back in 2011 Michelle Williams played Monroe at odds with Laurence Olivier on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957) in Simon Curtis’ “My Week with Marilyn.” Much here is asked of Armas, who is topless almost as much as she’s not. As Ryan Gosling’s virtual love interest Joi in “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), she demonstrated the sensuality gene that was such an ingrained part of Monroe’s public persona. She notched comedic flair in “Knives Out” (2019), lively action chops in the recent Bond blast “No Time to Die” (2021) and, maybe more to the end of the Monroe role, played an emotionally and sexually complex wife in Adrien Lyne’s twisted erotic thriller “Deep Water” this year. 

Like Oates’ book, “Blonde” is long, nearly three hours, but it ticks by in a sprightly way due mostly to the manic nature of Monroe’s depicted private life, brought to crescendos and crashes by Armas’ all-in effort. The cinematography by Chayse Irvin (“BlacKkKlansman”) is another staunch asset, as is Julianne Nicholson’s turn as Marilyn’s unstable single mother. It’s an undeniably well crafted film that rescripts history and delivers revelation under the guise of verisimilitude. The question is, does it really do its subject justice?

Rally promotes safer bike lanes, other solutions that protect riders across city lines and statewide

20 Sep

By Tom Meek Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Lily Linke speaks Saturday at a Safe Streets rally she co-organized in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

More aggressive pushes for bike lanes and other safety measures were promoted at a weekend rally in Somerville inspired by the August death of Stephen Conley, 72, in a “dooring” incident with a car.

The Saturday rally for Safe Streets at Seven Hills Park in Davis Square drew speakers that included state Reps. Mike Connolly and Erika Uyterhoeven, Somerville city councilor Willie Burnley Jr., former Cambridge vice mayor Jan Devereux, Cambridge city councilor Burhan Azeem and several residents.

Burnley, a first-term member and “proud member of the carless,” announced that he was calling for a safe streets ordinance similar to Cambridge’s Cycling Safety Ordinance, which requires miles of protected bike lanes to be installed on an aggressive timeline. The frequent need to remove parking to make room has created a divide with some residents and businesses; many speakers acknowledged the controversy but said it steeled their resolve.

“We know there’s a backlash,” Connolly said. “Unfortunately there are lawsuits and a degree of Nimby-ism. Certainly everyone’s entitled to their opinion. But I can tell you, as an elected official, we’re not going backward. We’re going to achieve Vision Zero.” The term refers to street engineered to be safe enough to cause zero deaths.

A crowd gathers to listen to speakers at Saturday’s rally in Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Azeem spoke more directly to challenges in Cambridge. “It’s hard when you’re sitting across the table from a small-business owner who says, ‘You know, if you take away my parking, it will shut down my business,’ but this [bike law] is literally life or death,” Azeem said.

Uyterhoeven shared her own story of long recovery after being hit by a cab in Boston while bicycling, and she encouraged activists to keep pushing until bike lanes were statewide – raising the issue of complications across city lines. Somerville’s portion of Webster Avenue has a protected bike lane, for example, but it ends at the back of a parked car at the Cambridge line to morph into what cyclists and transportation experts call a “door zone” bike lane of just a painted line next to parked cars. “Municipal structures don’t make those cross-city collaborations very easy. But they’re still critical to do,” Devereux said, cited Webster’s disjointed solution.

Another idea Burnley said he was working on with Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne was the prospect of using 311 tickets as a means of ticketing cars parked illegally in bike lanes. Like when failing to pay a toll, a ticket for the infraction would be mailed to the violator. A petition to decriminalize jaywalking circulated before speakers took the stage.

Among the residents speaking were Nadav Tanners, widower of doctor and social activist Leah Zallman. who was walking in Davis square when she was killed by a pickup truck in November 2020; and Cambridge Bicycle Group member Janie Katz-Christy, who talked about the perils and challenges of cycling with children.

The event was organized and hosted by husband and wife Seth Hurwitz and Lily Linke and drew around 100 people, including several cargo bikes laden with children.

Linke and Burnley wore bright red jumpsuits. The outfits were “not coordinated,” Linke said, “but the idea was the same: ‘Stop’ traffic violence.”

Moonage Daydream

17 Sep

There’s a starman waiting on the screen

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 15, 2022

Brett Morgen’s tribute to the life and immeasurable cultural contribution of musical icon David Bowie is not your typical rock-doc, but a sensual blast of imagery and sound – an enigmatic veneration, if you will, that delves into the heart and soul of all things Ziggy Stardust and beyond sans pedagogy.

Bordering on the experimental, “Moonage Daydream” blasts off with effusively edited, quick-cut razzmatazz, bouncing from the handsomely androgynous Ziggy on stage to esoteric silent film clips while orbiting space music chirps. Then we get a last line whispered by Rutger Hauer’s replicant in “Blade Runner” as Bowie is framed in infinite day-glo, duplicated as if he were a Max or Warhol painting. Then we settle in on the charismatic space alien doing a impassioned rendition of “All the Young Dudes,” the song he wrote for Mott the Hoople. It’s a kinetic kick in the kisser and the promise of something more: a Bowie immersion for fans and a 101 for the curious and uninformed.

At nearly two and a half hours, Morgen’s film maintains the power surge of riveting wonderment for a calisthenic 60 minutes; the films ebbs as we move from the big-screen culmination of Ziggy in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) to the Thin White Duke stage of his career. It’s in these later frames we hear more from Bowie reflecting back on his family and early challenges, the influence his brother had on him (he exposed him to Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Fats Domino, and was later put away in a sanatorium), his constant fear of mental illness and his aloof, estranged relationship with his mother. There’s plenty of ’60s and ’70s interview footage with Bowie pushing bisexuality and cross-dressing with buttoned-down, nonchalant panache. Missing however is Angie (his first wife that Jagger crooned about), and there’s just a wispy air kiss to Iman and no “Putting Out Fires.”

What Morgen concocts is a kaleidoscopic montage without a traditional narrative, though much of what you see is in pat chronological order. Morgen owes much to the late D.A. Pennebaker (“The War Room,” “Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back”), who shot several early Bowie concert films including “David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust” (1973), as well as to the camera folk who tailed Bowie during the making of “Man Who Fell to Earth” and his wistful exile to Berlin in the early ’80s. In the film you get a clear sense of the iconoclast’s commitment to his art and desire to morph and try different mediums (he was the first rock star to do a Broadway show, starring in “The Elephant Man” in 1980), but you never really get a full sense of Bowie the man. Does he remain aloof because he needs his distance to create, or is he a practical poser, or perhaps even a misanthrope? Hard to tell, but you do see the glimmer of a wry character in there who’s an innocent searcher, a bit of a raconteur and a puppet master, quick with a terse retort to those asking about his mask du jour.

One note (make that two) about the production: The Bowie estate sanctioned the film, which means Morgen, whose past reflections on intriguing personas include “The Kid Stays in the Picture” (2002) detailing the manic up and downs of New Hollywood producer Robert Evans; “Jane” (2017), a strong portrait of primatologist Jane Goodall; and “Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the 2015 look back at Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, has access to Bowie’s film archive, artwork (he was an impressive painter) and music. That, especially the music, is a big win when you consider the flaccid 2020 biopic “Stardust” hobbled by its inability to play Bowie tunes.

In the late ’90s director Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “Poison”) wanted to produce an adoration of Bowie and a nostalgic kiss to glam rock. Bowie turned him down, and Haynes went a different route, resulting in the underappreciated “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) in which he invents a fictional ’70s glam rocker named Brian Slade (played with perfect pomp and pouf by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who was, for all intents and purposes, Ziggy/Bowie. For the film, Haynes and crew recorded new glam-styled tunes and borrowed a few from Brian Eno, who appears several times in Morgen’s doc, credited as a creative influence on Bowie throughout the years. The other wild thing about the film’s journey to the screen is that when Bowie’s estate gave Morgen the green light, he had a heart attack and went into a coma. The film almost didn’t get made.

It’s a passion project, to be sure, that will sing to those who miss Bowie, especially those who embrace all stages of his meteoric and variegated career. Given the redundancy of some philosophies expressed and imagery reused, the film could have done with another round of edits, but it’s an exquisite composition with unlimited access and, like its subject, a shining wonderment that tantalizes and holds you at arm’s length.


11 Sep

Good scares about an Airbnb worth bad reviews

By Tom Meek Friday, September 9, 2022

“Barbarian” is an innovative shot of horror from writer-director Zach Cregger (“The Whitest Kids U’Know”) that plays gleefully with tropes and viewer expectations. It’s impressively crafted and makes for a riveting and genuinely chilling edge-of-your-seat experience. The setup’s pretty basic: Tess (Georgina Campbell) is in Detroit for an interview to be an assistant to a documentary filmmaker who champions social causes and the arts. In the middle of a major thunderstorm, Tess rolls up to the cute little house she’s rented on Airbnb and finds it already occupied by a dude named Keith (Bill Skarsgård). What to do? Keith’s a little sketchy, but on invite Tess comes in so she can get out of the rain and call the owner. Natch, there’s no answer and no response to email. Keith offers to take the couch, and Tess agrees reluctantly to stay. After Keith lets on he’s seen the director’s films, the two end up bonding over a bottle of wine. You feel certain there’s something devious and dark something going on, but Tess gets through the night and to the interview. What’s troubling in the morning, however, is the realization that the house is the only maintained residence on the street – as far as the eye can see, there’s nothing but dilapidated, bombed-out shacks, husks of Reagan’s 1980s economic boom. When Tess returns to the house, circumstance has her venture down into the basement where Cregger, like Ti West in “X” last year (and likely too with the film’s follow-up, “Pearl,” opening next weekend), pays homage to the classic gore-ror of the 1970s from Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and more while employing some crafty bait-and-switch and breaking new ground.

It’s hard to say more about “Barbarian” – the curious title reflects the street name, Barbar – without ruining the film’s deftly ingrained, devilish wit. Strange as it may sound, there’s a #MeToo subplot about an L.A. actor (Justin Long, the Mac guy) whose career goes down the toilet and a flashback to Barber Street during the prosperous 1980s. The performances by relative newcomer Campbell and Skarsgard (Pennywise in the recent “It” films) are nuanced, robust and deep in character. “Barbarian” is not quite on par with Jordan Peele’s acerbic social redirect “Get Out” (2017), but it’s in the ballpark’s parking lot. Speaking of Peele and his latest, “Nope,” that’s the exact word in the exact context Peele intended that falls from Tess’ mouth when she discovers an antechamber. Since the films were released in the same year, it’s hard to imagine Cregger playing on it; the serendipitous prospect is equally as neat. For all its little dekes and tweaks on old tricks, “Barbarian” falls more and more toward the pedestrian as it ties up loose ends and subplots. It’s still a taut, worthy ride and one that should allow Cregger, whose directorial CV is slim, to come back with more. 

How green is your Soylent?

9 Sep

Soylent Green is now

In 1966, when Harry Harrison penned his dystopian thriller Make Room! Make Room!, which began life as a serial in Impulse magazine, he predicted that by the future year of 1999, there would be more than 7 billion people on earth, and a robust 35 million in New York City alone. The 1973 film adaptation of Harrison’s novel, Soylent Green, altered several aspects of Harrison’s novel, including the year in which the thriller is set: 2022.

Now that we’re there (and decades past 1999), it’s worth asking: how well did Soylent Green director Richard Fleischer and his writer, Stanley R. Greenberg, get things right? When Harrison penned his serial, inspired in part by the Malthusian hysteria of the ecological movement, the world population was just over 3 billion, with the five boroughs of New York City checking in at 15 million. In 1999, those numbers were 6 billion and 17.5 million respectively. Today, we’ve passed Harrison’s prediction of 7 billion worldwide, but New York City, at 19 million, is still less than half of the 40 million that the film foresaw for our current year.

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Fleischer, whose list of credits includes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Doctor Doolittle (1967), Mandingo (1975) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), does a journeyman’s job of establishing the apocalyptic future at hand, giving us a sprightly montage of newsreel footage that rifles through cresting heaps of trash, cars locked in traffic jams as far as the eye can see, industrial waste belched upwards into the darkening sky and spewed out into debris-choked streams. It’s climate-change-on-crack, if you will. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Gone are the posh, coddled streets of Manhattan; now we find an impromptu tent city , with people living in rusted-out husks of abandoned automobiles. To get to his brownstone walk-up apartment, our protagonist, NYPD Detective Robert Thorn (played by Charleston Heston), has to navigate a writhing throng of homeless sleeping in the stairwell. At the top of those stairs there’s an armed guard to ensure none of the downtrodden gets too far up. It’s a metaphor for the society he lives in — get it?

As a comfortably employed member of the establishment (unemployment in the city is over 50 percent) you’d think Thorn might have decent digs. As is, he shares a cramped half-flat with an amiable old codger named Sol Roth (played by Edward G. Robinson, who died before the film was released), a retired academic and police investigator who every now and then hops on a stationary bike to power their humble TV.

In this austere future, the truly elite live well in modernistic lux domes, fenced off and tucked away from the hordes. Such grand enclaves come with bodyguards, a house manager and what’s referred to as “furniture,” i.e. one or more young women assigned to provide servitude and pleasure. When one such upper-cruster is murdered (the mystery Thorn is investigating) and the abode sold, the “furniture” (Leigh Taylor-Young) becomes part of the asset transfer.

Clearly, neither Make Room! Make Room! nor Soylent Green anticipated the dramatic upheavals in gender relations of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, brought about by feminism in general and the #MeToo awakening most recently. But they were pretty spot-on in forecasting the widening wealth gap and expanding corporate influence (the Soylent Corp., the all-powerful provider of foods and services, is eerily akin to Amazon today), and the dystopic subjugation of women seems like further biting commentary against a society run by the strong and wealthy few.

There’s a bit that’s comically dated , such as the film’s sense of future fashion and its rendering of the modern police force. As a law enforcement official, Thorn is hard to take seriously, garbed in a rumpled pastel cap and matching neckerchief and a cheesy Members Only jacket. The getup looks like Bogie’s skipper outfit in The African Queen, updated for the Eighties nightclub. Cops wear lacrosse helmets as riot gear, and their crowd-control vehicles are essentially garbage trucks equipped with a scoop to pick up and toss the disobedient hungry into their cavernous bins.

Make Room! Make Room! and Soylent Green also whiff in the technological sphere. There is no evidence in either book or movie of the stunning advances we’ve really made in computers, the internet, AI and social media. That said, both the novel and the film keenly foresee our current agitation over the control and diffusion of information and misinformation. Whereas we have “fake news” and troll farms, the 2022 of Soylent Green plays out a Fahrenheit 451-style future, showing how the ruling class, through the decimation of paper literature , pretty much holds the masses in an uninformed, complacent stasis. Not too far off, really, from the ignorant distraction provided by the digital cosmos of today.

Back to that mysterious food company. Because the cataclysmic side effects of global warming have essentially left the land and the seas barren, the Soylent Corporation — whose flagship product is an amalgam of “soy” and “lentil” — has become the de facto food provider to the world. Beef still exists, but only as a super scarce black-market luxury item. A jar of strawberry jam costs $150. What folks feast on instead are “Soylent Yellow” and “Soylent Red,” high-energy vegetable concentrates that come in wafer form. The corporation then releases the new “Soylent Green” version, which a television pundit informs us is sourced from plankton.

Today, back in the real world , we have lab-engineered plant-based “meat substitutes” like “Beyond” and “Impossible” meats, which cost about as much as their beef or pork antecedents. There’s even a company called Soylent, founded in 2012 by overworked Silicon Valley workers looking for a quick, nutritious meal to get them through their high-tech grind. The company, named as an homage to Harrison’s novel, produces 400-calorie plant-based power-drinks that provide the nutrients of a complete meal. There are myriad flavors — vanilla, banana, chocolate and so on — to choose from. A twelve-pack delivered to your door will cost you just north of forty dollars.

The narrative twist introduced by the film — spoiler alert — concerns the source of the titular sustenance, Soylent Green. Surprise: it’s not plankton after all (as it really was in the book), but human remains. The public is unaware of this unpalatable truth until the final frames of the movie, when a wounded Thorn, just captured by the bad guys , shouts out that indelible line to the crowd around him: “Soylent Green is people!” It’s a sharp, demonic twist: the conundrum of overpopulation and decimated food sources is solved by clandestine cannibalism.

The government mandates the “retirement” of seniors through a spa-like process, where the to-be-euthanized get to choose their favorite color (in the case of Sol, orange), music (classical), and visual surroundings (a medley of fields, streams and fauna that no longer exist) for their tranquil fade-out. I’d liken it to going under for surgery, or that brief and pleasantly groggy state after a full-body massage. It seems like a relatively easy way to go, for those who have to go, though with the unseemly risk of grandson chowing down on grandpa when Tuesday’s portions are meted out.

While we’re not quite living out the fullness of Fleischer’s grim forecast for year 2022, red lights are flashing. The race for clean energy, reduced carbon emissions and sustainable food has been slow out of the gate. Yes, there are still fish in the sea, and deer still frolic in bucolic glens. But whereas in the Nixon-era 1970s, the dark, self-invoked damnation of Soylent Green felt like something from the pages of H.G. Wells — fantastical, and generations off — today one can envision the film’s desolate rendering over the not-too-distant hills uncomfortably clearly.