Archive | April, 2023

Beau is Afraid

22 Apr

‘Beau is Afraid’: Mission to mommy

The latest from Ari Aster doesn’t quite swerve off into a macabre occult or seasonal cult rite the way “Heredity” (2018) and “Midsommar” (2019) did to the delight of art house horror fans, though “Beau is Afraid” has its own special flourishes of outré that disturb as much as they provoke. The film moves in a very A-then-B fashion with flashbacks to inform us on the trauma unfolding in the present. We begin in the dark with a series of dull thuds and agonized groans. There’s occasional bolts of white light and peers through murky pink filament. What’s going on, you might ask, trench warfare at night? Soon the answer is delivered as Beau is birthed and slapped awake into his new world. We leap ahead to find the mature, balding 40-something Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) in therapy, where we learn he has a lot of mommy issues. Given his father died at the very moment of his conception, this makes sense. His mother calls several times during the session; he doesn’t answer, but tells his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) he’s supposed to go visit her the next day – a task Beau doesn’t fully want to do.

We wander through chaotic streets, or is this unsettled world a projection of Beau’s inner turmoil? A berserk tattoo-faced man chases him with maniacal intent on his way home to a high-rise roost, where he hears news of a naked man stabbing people randomly. That evening, as Beau sleeps, a neighbor keeps sliding notes under his door asking him to turn down the music, yet his apartment is mute, and when Beau takes a bath, another neighbor literally drops in, in nearly the same demonic fashion a possessed soul does in the “Evil Dead” reboot out this week. Getting to mom proves elusive too. Lost keys, lost luggage – he never makes it to the airport, and when he calls his mother a UPS driver (Bill Hader, though you’d never know because you never really see him) answers and blathers on about police on the way and something about a chandelier and a missing head.

Beau remains absurdly calm and tries a plan B. The end result is that he gets stabbed, hit by a car and wakes up two days later in the bucolic home of Roger (Nathan Lane) and Grace (Amy Ryan, so good in “Gone Baby Gone”), kind medical professionals who nurse him back to health. Lurking around is a menacing looking “former war hero” (Denis Ménochet) who I’m not sure ever speaks, and the couple’s surly, sassy daughter (Kylie Rogers), who offers to drive Beau to his mother’s house. It turns out to be something of a blunt-smoking, kangaroo-court shenanigan. 

With effusive control, Aster keeps working us – and Beau – in a downward spiral where the sense of what’s real and what’s not is as murky as that birth canal opener. Lost in the woods, Beau stumbles upon a theater group enacting the play of his life, and there’s a neat segue into animation, further gonzo, dark turns and Parker Posey, superb in a brief yet pivotal part. Mom’s in nearly every frame even when she’s not there, but about midway through we get her in the flesh, in flashbacks (played by Zoe Lister-Jones) and breathing fire in the now (Patti LuPone, bringing it). The line-blurring journey is reminiscent of the award-winning Daniels’ film “Swiss Army Man” (2016), with Aster’s frenetic edginess and dread imbued in nearly every frame. It’s a near three-hour odyssey that rivets right up to the Orwellian finale. Not all of it works, and Beau never seems genuinely afraid at times others might hit the panic button, but Aster’s film, like his others, has that lingering provocative tease that’s both a sign and a gift.

Increasingly as recognizable as Ben and Matt, Matthew Maher of ‘Air’ is the other CRLS star

20 Apr

By Tom Meek Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Matthew Maher as Nike shoe designer Peter Moore in “Air.” (Photo: Amazon Studios)

The latest directorial effort from Ben Affleck, “Air,” an underdog story of sorts about Nike’s pursuit of Michael Jordan as the face of its basketball shoe line, has a lot of Cambridge baked into it. There’s Ben and star and Cambridge Rindge and Latin School buddy Matt Damon, who also attended Harvard; some mention of budding NBA star and CRLS baller Patrick Ewing as well as his coach, Mike Jarvis; and something that might pass under your radar – the involvement of character actor Matthew Maher, who in recent years has inched more and more toward the spotlight.

In “Air,” Maher plays Peter Moore, the shoe designer who came up with the Air Jordan concept and that neat hanging-in-the-sky-about-to-slam-it-home logo. It’s a pivotal role, as one of the keys to getting Jordan to sign with Nike was a presentation by the recruitment team played by Damon and Jason Bateman of a shoe that embodied his Royal Airness-to-be.

Maher, a prolific actor with some 60 screen credits, talked Friday by phone and Zoom.

Like Affleck and Damon, Maher grew up in Cambridge and graduated from CRLS. The parents of the three knew each other from Harvard, and bonded over politics in the 1960s, he said.

It was at CRLS – where he was also friends with city councillor Marc McGovern – that Maher first tried acting.

Matthew Maher, left, with fellow CRLS alum Matt Damon in “Air.” (Photo: Amazon Studios)

The theater scene at CRLS was cool, “a place I wanted to be,” Maher said. “It wasn’t nerdy, it’s where many of popular kids were.” But he was keenly aware that a cleft palate and slight speech impediment made him different from the Afflecks and Damons of the school’s drama scene, and would face different challenges. “I wanted to be an actor in high school,” Maher said, “but to me being an actor was to try to be like them. And they were gorgeous, really charming guys. Even back then, they were stars, and I had no idea how to do or be that. I had no idea to how to harness that kind of charm and self-confidence, because I didn’t have it.”

Maher went to the University of California, Santa Cruz, studying English but participating in theater productions. His teacher there was matter-of-fact: “You just have deal with the fact that you have a speech impediment, you have a cleft palate and you are different,” Maher recalled. That teacher was encouraging, and a major influence – though Maher did say that there were productions he felt he didn’t get cast in because he wasn’t in the “the bright circle of successful beautiful people.”

After college he landed in New York working off-Broadway productions, as well as taking small parts in several Kevin Smith projects – the first being “Dogma,” starring Damon and Affleck. His first meaty film role was in the lo-fi production “Vulgar” (2000), about a man who performs as a birthday party clown to deal with the trauma of being gang-raped earlier in his life. The film was directed by and starred Smith regular Bryan Johnson as well as other Smithies such as “Clerks” (1994) star Brian O’Halloran and Ethan Suplee.

Maher’s ubiquity as an actor has come later in life, due in part to the pandemic and the increased prevalence of streaming series. He had a leading part in “Funny Pages,” a small, very funny, indie coming-of-age satire that he feared was never going to see the light of day; filming began in 2017, when there were issues with funding, and then Covid happened. “I had invested so much in it,” Maher said of the film by Owen Kline, son of Kevin and Phoebe Cates. Then the pandemic lifted and the crew was able to get its final reshoots. Maher received strong reviews when it screened in 2022 alongside his roles in two series: “Outer Range” with Josh Brolin (creator Brian Watkins wrote the part of Deputy Matt specifically for Maher), and the gay pirate comedy “Our Flag Means Death.” This year, the Apple TV+ prestige dramedy, “Hello Tomorrow!” on which Maher is a series regular arrived alongside “Air.”

Affleck offered the part of Nike’s Moore directly to Maher, which came as a surprise. It was an esteemed crew, with Oscar winners beyond Damon and Affleck: cinematographer Robert Richardson and actor Viola Davis, playing Jordan’s mother by demand of Jordan himself. Stil, the set was “very comfortable and relaxed,” Maher said.

In researching the part of Moore, who died a year ago at 78, Maher discovered “a true artist, who had to make art that everybody loved” – but a man he looked nothing like. Moore didn’t have a beard, Maher said, “but Affleck decided to let me be as I was.”

Maher has two young children: one pre-pandemic 3½-year-old, and another who’s just notching 8 months. He’s spent time in Los Angeles, but now calls Brooklyn, New York, home and keeps Cambridge ties – his mother, who taught at Wheaton College, and stepmother still live in Cambridge.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

14 Apr

Taking charge, explosively, of fight against climate change

Daniel Goldhaber’s eco-terrorist (his word) thriller rides a sharp edge while executing some sneakily cool plot twists. The frenetic techno score by Gavin Brivik rivets as it breathes dread into nearly every frame – it’s essential. That said, there’s also something naggingly twee and subtly insincere to “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” that robs it of what could have been an earnestly earned victory lap.

You can’t argue with the film’s high-alert climate change messaging – I mean you can, but I won’t. Adapted by Goldhaber, Ariela Barer (who also stars and is one of the producers) and Jordan Sjol from Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction work, the movie settles in with a group of young climate change activists who are looking to up their game from slashing the tires of diesel-chugging SUVs to the event of the title. The assemblage is one of diverse backgrounds, but all are focused on the same thing: Stopping climate change now, by any means. Xochitl (former “Modern Family” star Barer) lost her mom during a heat wave; the bomb-making expert Michael (Forrest Goodluck, who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s son in “The Revenant”) is angered by the presence of oil crews on his native lands; another, a square-jawed Texan (Jake Weary), is pissed off a pipeline is being put through his backyard; and then there’s the Bonnie and Clyde hipster couple (Kristine Froseth and Lukas Gage) who seem to do this kind of thing just for the fun of it.

Goldhaber, who came to notoriety for his taut Internet chiller “Cam” (2018) about a camgirl who encounters her doppelgänger on the Web, shows a deft eye for plot orchestration and messaging, but when it comes to depth of character, not so much. How the principals come together – by happenstance, Internet forums, current relations and even a documentary – is well baked, but once we meet them and learn their “Dirty Dozen” expertise, we never really get much more; most come off as posturing idealists with an ax to grind and no grindstone.

There are, at varying key junctures, punctuated flashbacks in which each activist’s backstory is meted out. Some add great relevance to the current action, others feel like ill-advised meanders, a detraction from the main mission, like the driver of a getaway car who decides to go into a bar for a burger and a beer moments before the heist goes down. Of the characters, Barer’s Xochitl feels the most developed (wearing the writer’s hat likely having something to do with that) along with Theo (Sasha Lane), who grew up with Xochitl and, like several others in the group, withholds critical information from other players – though her’s is more organic and real, less a plot-twist gotcha. Thankfully on tap is Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), the group’s Greek chorus (“people are going to get hurt,” “this won’t work” and so on).

The group’s decision to go over the line into violence is rationalized as justified because global corporations bow only to their boards and the bottom dollar, and the only way to stem climate change now is to trigger a domino effect of eco-terrorist acts. I’d argue that getting legislation passed that would put a stiff tax on non-green corporations and those lazily reliant on fossil fuel would be the way to go, but, hey, if someone asked me that back in my bar-brawling days (probably at the apex of fossil fuel consumption), I’ll likely be up for lighting it up. Then again, I don’t think I was that interesting or deep back then either. 


7 Apr

‘Air’: Some slam dunk cinema from Ben Affleck about a Nike deal that was far from a shoo-in

When it’s hard to imagine humble beginnings for corporate giants, origin stories reframe, refocus and provide new context. Microsoft and Apple started out of garages, right? Nike, the now-mega sports apparel conglomerate, took flight when founder and longtime chief executive Phil Knight started selling shoes out of the trunk of his car in the ’60s. The company became a leader in the track and running market in the ’70s, but as far as basketball went, it was a JV wannabe behind Converse and Adidas. The push to garner a greater market share is what “Air” is all about, and we all know who his royal Airiness is and how the story goes – but that union wasn’t as easy or even as probable as many might imagine, and that is where this film, directed by Ben Affleck and sharply written by Alex Convery, finds its sweet spot.

The lens falls on portly basketball scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who’s given a quarter-million dollars by Knight (played with shaggy-dog gusto by Affleck) to sign an NBA draftee and help the company move up in market share. The problem is that Converse and Adidas have millions at their disposal; Vaccaro and crew (a chatty, avuncular Chris Tucker and Jason Bateman, stealing every scene as a smug marketing maven) have to look past the cream of the crop – Charles Barkley, No. 1 pick Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie and Michael Jordon – to the next tier of John Stockton, Jeff Turner and Melvin Turpin (who, you might ask?) for a realistic signee that may, against steep odds, become a marquee player in the NBA and give Nike a brand blastoff. Instead of spreading the money around on a few late, first-round long shots, Vaccaro fixates on Jordan, proclaiming him a once-in-a-generation superstar. History shows he wasn’t wrong, but few at the time, including Knight and the Nike board, were willing to take a chance. Vaccaro persists, though, coloring outside the lines by bypassing Jordan’s agent (played with hilarious, foulmouthed vitriol by Chris Messina in a breakout role) and driving to North Carolina to connect with Jordan’s parents, James (a gentlemanly Julius Tennon) and Deloris (Oscar winner Viola Davis, bringing her A-game to the pivotal role).

Like the journalistic investigation that sussed out the evils of Harvey Weinstein in “She Said” (2022) – granted, the contexts are worlds apart – you never really see or hear the object of the film’s focus, though Jordan haunts nearly every frame. It’s good to see Damon and Affleck together again. They played together most recently in Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” (2021) but most Boston-famously in “Good Will Hunting” (1997); this is the first time one Cambridge Rindge and Latin buddy gets to direct the other, and their casual familiarity deepens the scenes between old colleagues Vaccaro and Knight. Speaking of Rindge, there are some cheeky references to Mike Jarvis and that phenom from Jamaica, Patrick Ewing. Rounding out the ingeniously cast ensemble is Matthew Maher as Peter Moore (who passed away last year), the designer who came up with the iconic logo of Jordan hanging in the air, and Marlon Wayans as George Raveling, a college basketball coach and sounding board for Vaccaro.