Long Shot

3 May

‘Long Shot’: She’s testing a run for president, he’s that strange bedfellow you hear about

 

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Without Charlize Theron, “Long Shot” would likely have no shot. The capable and statuesque actress has time and time again demonstrated her versatility, bouncing seamlessly from action (“Atomic Blonde”and “Mad Max: Fury Road”) to comedy (“Young Adult”) and of course, dark drama, namely playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” (2003), for which she won Oscar gold. Here she’s in rom-com mode as Secretary of State Charlotte Field looking to push a green initiative worldwide and launch a run for the Oval Office.

Before you say Hillary Clinton, “Long Shot” is set against a different political climate than the one we find ourselves in today – not that it doesn’t parody and poke at it. In this parallel political universe, the sitting president (Bob Odenkirk) is a former actor who has let it quietly be known he isn’t going to seek reelection because he’s got a series (Netflix, Amazon?), which triggers Field’s ambition. Along her test-the-waters tour there’s an early stop at a swanky Manhattan cocktail party where Boyz II Men happen to be the centerpiece of the all-white event. It’s there in the haughty suffocating stuffiness that she recognizes Seth Rogen’s Fred Flarsky, not because he’s in an electric blue windbreaker at a black tie event – one of many long running gags that goes on perhaps a bit too long – but because she babysat him when he was in his pre-teens, ending in an awkward moment when the young Flarsky winds up sporting a very visible erection.

Yes, that’s how “Long Shot” rolls. The script by Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling has the uproarious irreverence of “Something About Mary” (1998) and some sharp political spoofs too, especially Andy Serkis as the Rupert Murdoch-styled tycoon who just fired Flarsky’s ultra critical journalist (penning pieces such as “Why the Two-Party System Can Suck a Dick”) or Alexander Skarsgård as the Justin Trudeau-esque Canadian prime minister being pushed by handlers, the diplomatically community at large and the press on Charlotte as a romantic possibility.The saucy send-ups of Fox News and CNN are bitingly hysterical, and sadly spot-on.

Plot-wise, Flarsky gets brought aboard as Charlotte’s speechwriter, and romantic seeds begin to take hold along a trip through Europe. That’s also when “Long Shot” becomes its least effective. Theron registers her best when Charlotte’s charming a room with her confidence and style or talking about the limitations of being a woman in politics: “If I am angry, I’m hysterical. If I raise my voice, I’m a bitch.” Not enough can be said about Theron’s presence and poise, and director Jonathan Levine seems to be well aware of the fact, as nearly every frame hangs from his star’s gravitational pull. Comedy star June Diane Raphael adds to the potpourri, playing it straight and sassy as Charlotte’s senior staffer, but the real big winner in this Theron tour de force (as well as carrying the film, she’s also devilishly funny) is O’Shea Jackson Jr., so good in “Straight Outta Compton” (2015, where he played his father, Ice Cube) and “Ingrid Goes West” (2017), and even more scene-grabbing here as Flasky’s bestie, a closeted GOP pragmatist. For O’Shea the future should be rife with opportunity, for Theron, there are no limits.

Ask Dr. Ruth

3 May

‘Ask Dr. Ruth’: Sex therapist of decades past has always had a lot going on – and still does

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Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Dr. Ruth Westheimer was everywhere, including on her own radio show and frequent appearances with the likes of Howard Stern and Johnny Carson. The diminutive sex therapist (she’s 4-foot-7) was Dr. Phil and more, as Ryan White’s adoring but deep-delving documentary reveals.

“She was America’s sex therapist during the AIDS crisis,” one talking head inserts before a cut to footage of Westheimer taking a hot potato insinuation about that disease from an audience member; the eternally grandmotherly woman calmly urges no blame or accusation, but a coming together of minds to avert a wider public health crisis and find a cure.

Recollections from that time may have her rendered as something of a caricature, but White’s dial-back reveals a keen, caring soul, and ever quick-witted (even at 90, as this documentary was shooting). He goes all the way back to when Westheimer, a German Jew, was put on a train to Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport program at the outbreak of World War II. Her parents perished in the Holocaust, and there’s a deeply heartfelt moment in the film as she looks them up at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. It gives her pause, but the the stoic Westheimer stiffens a bit and remarks to the camera,“I will cry later when no one else is around. German Jews don’t cry in public.”

There’s some fun it the telling too, which includes a pleasant blend of animation and old black-and-white images in importing tales such as Westheimer’s first sexual experience – in a hayloft in Israel after the war (where she was to meet her parents) with the brother of a young man she was dating. And it’s revealed that Westheimer was a killer shot: She served as a sniper in the Israel Defense Forces. Yup, little Dr. Ruth could pick apart a titan with her finger as well as she could with her words.

Married three times and something of an enigma to her children and grandchildren, Westheimer remains in perpetual motion, always acting and moving as if her life and the world depended on it. In one scene she shows White’s camera crew just how fast she can skedaddle. Along with getting a deeper look into Westheimer’s alluring persona and career, not to mention the dark corners of her childhood, the thing you realize is the absolute infectiousness of her charm and her care and compassion for fellow human beings. Ryan captures her winning personality with caring deference, and we all win.

A Tale of Two Cities

1 May

On Webster, we see how far Cambridge goes on protected bike lanes: Right up to city line

The City Council approved a Cycling Safety Ordinancethis month requiring the city to add separated or protected bicycle infrastructure during construction of key routes in the Cambridge Bicycle Plan. So it rankles cycling advocates that the city resists installing a protected bike lane on a small stretch of Webster Avenue funneling into Cambridge from Somerville’s Union Square – one of the few main arteries that connect the two cities – after Somerville installed a protected bike lane in 2018 (taking away parking to do so) along its roughly 80 percent of the quarter-mile stretch late. As it is now, a cyclist coming down Webster from Union Square to Cambridge Street gets a stark transition from a protected bike lane (in Somerville) to the back end of a parked car (in Cambridge). Cyclists must have the acumen and verve to bounce out into the road and attempt to take the lane for the remaining hundred yards.

Here’s what these trips look like traveling on Webster:

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And on Elm:

And on Tremont:

To the council’s credit, Mayor Marc McGovern, vice mayor Jan Devereux and councillor Sumbul Siddiqui sponsored an order in January to have the city look into making a connection. The response filed Mondayby City Manager Louis A. DePasquale notes that Webster is not listed as part of the Bike Plan network – which is under review – and cites the number of auto repair shops (and Pat’s Towing) along that stretch, as well as an unfortunate but familiar point: Somerville’s improvements were “implemented with limited coordination with Cambridge.”

This failure to connect across municipalities and agencies has long been a bane of commuting cyclists seeking safety and consistency. At a recent bike social put on by the Somerville Bike Committee at the Aeronaut Brewery, Cara Seiderman, a transportation program manager in Cambridge’s Community Development Department, admitted that city planners “were trying to get better at it.”

DePasquale’s response points bicyclists to alternative safe routes on Elm and Tremont streets, both small and with one-way traffic – but putting them on a path to make a left against traffic or continue across busy Cambridge Street without the benefit of a traffic signal, unlike Webster. Additionally, the road surfaces on Elm and Tremont, chosen because their narrowness allows and requires cyclists to claim the full lane, are unfriendly, pockmarked, overly patched and rough vibration jitter-fests – especially Elm, which isn’t due for serious work until 2022. (DePasquale suggested Monday he would act to make improvements faster.) The Cambridge portion of Webster is in no great shape, either.

Webster Avenue is a busy route for people who bike, as councillors heard from several who attended their Monday meeting. George Schneeloch, an MIT software engineer and member of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety group, said, the city’s reasoning was full of delay tactics that verged on “gaslighting,” showing mainly that its planners were “hopelessly out of touch.”

“Government has let down the people they have a responsibility to protect,” Schneeloch said.

Granted, there is construction at Cambridge and Webster streets, so getting any sort of solution in place – even if it’s temporary or just paint – would have logistical complications. For now the Bicycle Safety group intends to add the matter to its list of items to focus on at events and activities such as a Rally for Mass Ave and Critical Connectors to be staged Tuesday on the front lawn of City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.

Cambridge may have been the first city to mandate protected bike lanes, but if you go to Webster Avenue and look north and south from the town line, you can see exactly how far that policy takes us.

 

Hail Satan?

1 May

‘Hail Satan?’: Political pranksters they may be, but devil worshipers say they’re on a mission

 

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Billerica native Penny Lane, whose documentarian endeavors have included Super 8 found footage of Richard Nixon (“Our Nixon”) and an eccentric doctor who treated impotency in the early 1900s with goat testicle implants (“Nuts!”), tackles devil worshipers in her latest foray into the strange and off-center, “Hail Satan?”

The subject for Lane’s lens this time also happens to have nearby roots – The Satanic Temple is based out of Salem. You might assume satanists flocked there because of witches, but it’s more that co-founder Lucien Greaves was a Harvard man. (Harvard Square is front and center in footage, as it’s the site of the first TST dark mass. Initially slated to take place on or near university property, the ceremony, after protracted protests, was moved at the eleventh hour to the infamous scorpion bowl den of the Hong Kong Restaurant.)

Penny Lane, maker of the documentary “Hail Satan?” screening at Landmark Kendall Square Cinemas. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The film opens with footage of the Temple supporting then-Florida governor Rick Scott’s bill to allow prayer in school because, while aimed at Christianity, the bill would allow in theory for any creed to be expressed – even those of the dark church. That’s the kind of cunning twist the Temple routinely bends back on society; but if you don’t find that right-to-worship stunt devilish enough, how about the demand to erect a statue of Baphomet (the half-man/half-goat icon of Satan) in Oklahoma and Arkansas next to sculptures of the Ten Commandments? That legal wrangle becomes the central thread of the film as Lane weaves in the Temple’s origins and bigger contemplations of religious freedom and freedom of speech. At times you can’t help but wonder if the Temple isn’t wholly something of a satirical prank, conceived and played on society for kicks.

As talking heads, TST leaders Greaves (a handsome lad with a scarred eye that adds to his mystique) and Jex Blackmore possess enchanting charisma as they articulate missions and political battles with lawyerly control and precision, making common sense remarks such as “the freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend” and “one should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.” If you’re hoping for black robes, satanic rock blasting from speakers and midnight rituals of the occult (not that they don’t happen, we’re just not really invited), you might be disappointed – though a vociferous political rant by Blackmore, something of a piece of performance art, offers a bit of verve and bite.

Lane at times feels a bit too embedded, which, given the allure of the personalities of display, is understandable. Asked about the subject and her approach, she said, “I set out to make a film that poked at religion and, in the end, I made a film about religious people.”

Like many of us probably would, Lane admittedly came to the project with misconceptions about satanists and devil worshipers. The film, as it rolls along, humanizes its members. By the end you realize that, outside a public campaign, they are intelligent, regular folk with different religious beliefs and political views, not unlike you and me.

Down in the Weeds in 02138

1 May

Proposed pot seller has an occupied address: Stereo Jack’s Records, in business for 37 years

 

Stereo Jack’s, at 1686 Massachusetts Ave., has been targeted for replacement by a seller of recreational marijuana. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The owners of a proposed pot shop called Budega did community outreach this week to potential neighbors of the business at 1686 Massachusetts Ave., an address occupied by Stereo Jack’s Records.

“Someone has applied for a license,” according to person answering the phone at Stereo Jack’s, “but we have no plans to close.”

At 37 years old and still run by founder Jack Woker, Stereo Jack’s is one of the longest-running retail stores along the corridor linking Harvard and Porter squares. Budega has begun an application process, but zoning for recreational cannabis has yet to be approved by the city. Arish Halani, the company’s chief operating officer, said opening the shop would take at least a year.

Stereo Jack’s owner Jack Woker in a video made last year by Will Marsh in collaboration with Newton North TV. Click through to watch the video.

The pending law and city officials both favor economic empowerment applicants – basically, people of color who were targeted disproportionately by police and courts during the war on drugs – and Budega’s letter leads with the information that it is a “women-, minority- and family-owned business.” It is signed by company president Sareena Halani and assures residents that it is “different than the big corporations currently in the cannabis space,” and wished to “work together to create a safe and secure dispensary.”

The letter also says to direct questions, comments and concerns to “me,” though the “me” is Arish Halani, not Sareena Halani.

The Halanis are brother and sister, South Boston residents whose parents live in Florida and have run jewelry stores and fast food eateries, Arish Halani said. He is a recent graduate of Babson College who works in commercial banking and co-owns a tax prep service in Chicago; his sister will graduate Northeastern this spring.

They plan to make a formal community presentation May 9 at Lesley University, 1815 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, with their father, Sohail Halani, and walk residents through the timeline for opening and other details about the shop, Arish Halani said.

Their first attempt at selling marijuana as Omnicann was in East Boston, but the application was denied by the city, Arish Halani confirmed. Now Budega faces a competing license for recreational marijuana sales for the empty space at 1908 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, formerly a Chinese restaurant called Wok N’ Roll. The locations are less than a half-mile apart.

Arish Halani said his company has signed a letter of intent with Crete Realty Trust, landlord of the Stereo Jack’s property.

“There’s a rumor out there that says Stereo Jack is planning to retire, and that is complete and utter bullshit,” said the person answering the phone at the vinyl shop. Asked who was speaking, the voice said, “Why, I’m Stereo Jack.”

WBCN and The American Revolution

25 Apr

‘WBCN and The American Revolution’ tunes IFFB into rock history at weekend screening

 

The WBCN airstaff circa 1969 included Michael Ward, Steven Segal, J.J. Jackson, Al Perry, Sam Kopper, Jim Parry and Joe Rogers, aka Mississippi Harold Wilson. (Photo: David Bieber)

It’s been 10 years since WBCN, the radio station that defined rock ’n’ roll in Boston for more than four decades, went off the air. For anyone living in Boston before the Internet boom, ’BCN was as big a part of Hub life as the Celtics and the Red Sox – and now in a documentary by Bill Lichtenstein, “WBCN and The American Revolution,” the early days of the envelope-pushing radio station get their nostalgic due. The film plays this weekend as the Centerpiece Spotlight Documentary of the Independent Film Festival Boston.

The anniversary of the station’s demise wasn’t quite the impetus for the film, Lichtenstein said. “What drew me to the project, besides my roots, was that in the mid-2000s, in wake of 9/11 and Bush, there was a lot going on and people were not speaking up. John Kerry was running for president and Bruce Springsteen did a benefit concert and he was critiqued for being too political, and the same time, Napster started to bring back old songs and Bruce’s first interview at ’BCN showed up on the Internet,” Lichtenstein said. “I thought maybe I could go back and see what there was out there on ’BCN, because ’BCN had no archival footage.”

Lichtenstein, a Cambridge resident, began as a 14-year-old intern at the station in 1970, eventually becoming a DJ and newscaster. After leaving ’BCN, he worked at ABC in New York on news shows such as “20/20” and “Nightline.” Continue reading

Avengers: Endgame

25 Apr

‘Avengers: Endgame’ was a long time coming, and it’s another exceptionally long time going

 

And so it begins, or ends, and no matter how you see it, it’s a long one. “Avengers: Endgame,” the de facto part two of “Avengers: Infinity War,” clocks in at more than three hours – 30 minutes longer than “Infinity” and chock full of maudlin eddies that should have been pared back. That said, “Endgame” gets the job done, passing the baton as it closes out a long-running chapter with some sentimental eye rubs. Where Disney’s Marvel Universe goes from here is likely a focus on new blood such as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). They’re both in “Endgame,” tossed in as inert garnish.

In case you need a rewind: At the end of “Infinity War,” Thanos (Josh Brolin), blessed with the unholy alignment of all six infinity stones (the power of a god to create and destroy), has eradicated half the life in the universe and, with that, half of the Avengers crew. We catch up with Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) floating near-dead in space, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) searching desperately for his wife and children and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) spit out unceremoniously of a five-year time warp – in a beat-up Ford Econoline or the like, to boot. The film moves along sluggishly for the first half-hour, and I’d be wrong to tell you fully how it flies, but the simple answer is: The remaining Avengers crew need to somehow turn back the clock. Given that this is Marvel, and a superhero fantasy (the opening with Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is nearly as ingenious as the use of “Mr. Blue Sky” in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” – is there some mandate for classic rock songs with “Mr.” in the title in the Marvel Uni?) that time travel quest – with semi-hilarious film references to “Back to the Future” – happens sure enough, and the “Infinity War” with Thanos gets something of a do-over.

Before that the film notches some of its greatest self-deprecating wins, namely in that the buff god of thunder, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), some five years after Thanos’ win in Wakanda, is now a potbellied booze bag looking like the portly Val Kilmer, “large mammal” portrayal of the latter-years Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Or take the Hulk/Bruce Banner, (Mark Ruffalo) who has gotten his raging greenness and mild manner intellect to come to terms. And then there’s Hawkeye, who’s been bestowed the worst hairstyle imaginable – an unholy marriage of a mullet and a mohawk. How and why this choice was ever made is never explained and demands a film of its own, but yes, it’s a weird alternate reality out there, and not necessarily a bad one. As one observant Avenger points out, with half as many humans on the planet the water in the Hudson is now so clean, pods of a resurgent whale populations are hanging out where there were once toxically polluted slurries.

Ultimately “Endgame,” like “Infinity War,” both directed by the brothers Russo (Anthony and Joe, who made the far cheekier and superior “Civil War”) turns into a major CGI boggle of superheroes battling a herd of creepy-crawly things from another planet. Amid all the chaos there’s one gratuitous yet neat scene where an all-female phalanx of supers try to get the final wold-saving run done, and yes, Captain America (Chris Evans, with the requisite square-jawed woodenness)  is there to anchor the whole shebang; in very (too) small metes, we also get Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford and Tilda Swinton. It’s a very crowded affair.  Some big names and friends move on and out with a tear or two to be shed, but I was more struck by other matters looming at the edges of the frame, including nature’s resurgence in a less populated world, curiosity for how far Brie Larson and the “Captain Marvel” franchise can realistically go and, most of all, that haircut Renner is saddled with. It’s indelible and unshakable. If his Hawkeye could travel back in time to the 1990s there would be NHL hockey teams north of the border that would surely inject him in the first line based on hair alone.