The Hunt

14 Mar

‘The Hunt’: Liberals don’t want to take their guns – because they really add zest to the human hunt

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The film “The Hunt,” not to be confused with the 2012 Danish film of the same name starring Mads Mikkelsen, had been shelved by Universal last year because of sensitivity issues related to the film’s central plot of humans using other humans as prey – nothing new, but back in the day Fay Wray was in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) or Cornel Wilde was “The Naked Prey” (1965), Charles Whitman had yet to show the world what human-on-human carnage was really about.

The strategy had been to release “The Hunt” as a horror film; now the curio is being spun as a satire-cum-horror, or something “unclassifiable.” If we hadn’t seen Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) or “Us” (2019), tagging it as unique, new or groundbreaking might work, but that crossover zone has already been defined and owned. “The Hunt” begins like a “Saw” chapter with a dozen random people waking up in the kind of bucolic field you might find in “Midsommar” (2019), semi-bound and gagged and not knowing where they are. Turns out they’re in a kill zone. Once they find a key to unlock the gags, a helpful park ranger comes out bearing arms. “Why do we need these?” comes a groggy question as semi-automatic pistols and assault rifles are meted out. Before there is any real answer, the asker’s brains are splattered by a high-caliber projectile and it’s game on, with the rest of the crew scattering and taking cover.

The what and why as bullets and arrows fly pull at the minds of those on the run as well as the audience. A trio eventually gets outside the barbed wire confines, muttering something about “Mansongate.” It’s along their journey that we get an inkling of what’s going on: rich liberals hunting deplorables and rednecks for their racially insensitive online posts, denial of climate change and so on. “I bet he used the N-word a lot,” one Richie Rich says. “You fail and we pay,” another says in the middle of hand-to-hand combat. It’s cheeky irony that the East Coasters have set up their slaughter shop in Arkansas, and another wicked barb that filmmaker Craig Zobel and his writers, Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (both of TV’s “Watchmen”), have us rooting for the “deplorables,” who in this case seem far less a threat to democracy than rich liberals who want to impose their will with dollars and cents, and, in this case, semiautomatic weapons.

It’s hard to discuss “The Hunt” more without selling the farm, and that’s the real fun of the film: the twists, pitfalls and revelations that confront the hunted as they seek safe ground. I will say that Betty Gilpin of Netflix’s “Glow” cuts a captivating presence as the unassuming waif with kick-ass can-do (think Ripley by way of “Emma”) tagged Snowball (“Animal Farm” tries to factor into the plot, but the convention is oddly inserted). She’s matched by Hilary Swank’s righteously indignant badass, who likes to discuss the delineating factors between a house and a mansion, and Amy Madigan and Reed Birney make a wonderful side dish as a pair of yokels who run a ma-and-pa gas station. The plot’s got a bunch of holes in it, but “The Hunt”’s more about the pursuit, cheeky spoofs and the notion that elitism ain’t pretty no matter what flag you’re waving.

Corona and Film

14 Mar

Harvard Film Archive is closing through April; moviegoers start strategizing for safer seating

tmp-HFAThe Harvard Film Archive will be closed and empty through April, curators said Tuesday. 

With Gov. Charlie Baker declaring a state of emergency after reported Covid-19 infection cases hit 92 on Tuesday, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology going online-only after their spring breaks and people encouraged to shelter in place as much as possible, what happens to our public cultural staples – sports, the arts and entertainment? The latest Film Ahead column of special events and local arthouse and repertory programs got halved as the Harvard Film Archive announced its screen would go dark after the Tuesday screening of “Wendy and Lucy” with director Kelly Reichardt in attendance.

The Archive will be closed through April. Films and programs will be rescheduled after a reopening in May. The closing – and suggestion of sports events being played in empty arenas – only triggers questions about other theaters’ response. Kendall Square and Somerville theaters wouldn’t comment; at The Brattle Theatre, the Archive’s neighbor in Harvard Square, executive director Ivy Moylan said it’s business as usual.

For now.

“We are taking it one day at a time. We have instructed our staff on increased cleaning and are staying up to date with city, state and [federal health] instructions,” Moylan said. “We are keeping an eye on things as they change.”

On social media, friends said that they’d be bringing Clorox wipes to the theater or, in theaters with assigned seating, pay the extra dollars for “firewall” seats that add distance from other patrons.

One thing about film: It has always been a great way to quiet the mind in trying times. It may be streaming services from Netflix, Amazon and the Criterion Channel that will more relaxing for some in the coming days. Nothing beats a trip to the theater, but the world cannot live without cinema.

The Way Back

8 Mar
TORRANCE

Watching “The Way Back,” the story of an alcoholic has-been who finds redemption taking the reins of a losing high school basketball team, I was pretty sure I was taking in something based on true events. A quick gander of the press notes and the answer was a solid nay, and somehow I felt cheated. I mean, would “Hoosiers” (1986) resonate as thoroughly if it weren’t true?

Given that the film stars Ben Affleck with his tabloid-chronicled struggles with alcohol, there’s a truth here that you can feel in the actor’s convincing “been there” performance. Affleck has puffed up for the role; he’s boxy and bloated. Gone is the buff Batman physique, and his face is weary and heavy. It’s a lived-in performance that may go down as one of Affleck’s finest, even if the film, while hitting all the requisite marks, feels thin – moving and meaningful, sure, but thin.

We catch up with Affleck’s Jack Cunningham working a construction job in L.A. He’s isolated, a barely functioning alcoholic who pops a can of beer in the shower each morning but at least has the presence of mind to get a ride home from the bar each night. During a tense Thanksgiving dinner at his sister’s house we learn Jack was once an all-state ball player at a small Catholic high school and had a scholarship to the big time, but events sidelined his success and have him separated from his wife, Angela (an effectively sensitive Janina Gavankar). The opportunity for Jack’s “way back” comes in the form of a random call from the head of Jack’s old high school. Turns out the basketball coach had a heart attack; the school asks Jack to step in, even though he hasn’t picked up a ball in 20 years, let alone ever coached.

The crew Jack has to oversee is fairly pat platoon of misfits and castoffs, unable to win a game against a team of gnomes, including the slack showboat who thinks he’s better than he is (Melvin Gregg), the full-of-himself ladies man (Will Ropp), the portly prankster (Charles Lott Jr.) and the team’s taciturn star with home life challenges (Brandon Wilson). The assemblage of coach and kids who need each other screams cliché, but director Gavin O’Connor – who’s been down this path before with “Miracle” (2004) and “Warrior” (2011) – keeps things gritty and realistic, adroitly avoiding what otherwise might have been maudlin pitfalls. The script by Brad Ingelsby (“Out of the Furnace”) may come off as forced and coy in the way it introduces backstory and developments, but to its credit, it moves in directions that are anything but Hollywood. The real buzzer beater here, however, is the chemistry between Affleck and his squad. Sure, they grow as young men and the team begins to come together and win, but it’s more palpably conveyed than just simply checking those boxes. The dynamic with Jack’s sensitive assistant coach (Al Madrigal), a math teacher who’s onto Jack saucing it up in the office, helps deepen the complex nature of addiction and recovery. Overall, “The Way Back” might not be an instant classic, but it is a sobering spin on hopelessness and despair and finding the way forward.

Burden

5 Mar

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With the understanding that the KKK factors heavily in the plot, you’d think the title “Burden” would have something to do with the onus of racism or the dismantling of it. But no, the film, based on true events, is simply about a gent named Mike Burden, a narrow-minded peckerwood who, à la “American History X” (1998), has an awakening to the hate etched so obviously in front of his face. The film, by actor turned first-time filmmaker Andrew Heckler (“Armageddon,” “Ally McBeal”), won the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance 2018. But “Burden,” despite its prestigious pedigree and firebrand topic, is a fairly straight-ahead narrative that misses opportunities as it checks off social justice boxes.

As Burden, Garrett Hedlund (“Pan,” “Four Brothers”) gets the snaky, snot-snorting, chew-spitting redneck down to a T. The film catches up with Mike in the mid 1990s, just back from a stint in the military and about to pitch in with de facto father figure Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), the grand leader of a podunk South Carolina chapter of the Klan who’s about to demo, remodel and transform the town’s derelict nickelodeon into a KKK gift shop and museum. The gory baubles of violence (knives, crosses and masks) are almost as cringeworthy as the frequent drop of the N-word from the beer-drinking bums who undertake the task. Such a public establishment doesn’t sit well with the Rev. David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) or any of the African American population of Laurens, rightfully fearful of the Klan – and the law. Protests and violence ensue. Ultimately, because of his developing relationship with Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother with a progressive mindset, and a rekindled friendship with childhood friend Clarence (Usher Raymond), Mike hits a crisis of conscious and wrestles with exiting the Klan. That proves to be a none too easy endeavor, and potentially dangerous.

The cast, most especially (and predictably) Hedlund and Academy Award winner Whitaker, execute Heckler’s vision with ardor and investment. Wilkinson, so good in everything does (“In the Bedroom,” “Michael Clayton”) nearly elevates his villainous Griffin to the realm of human complexity, but Heckler, doing double duty as screenwriter, doesn’t trust the audience enough – the shock of the N-word and notion of bred-in hate gets so overused they become just more drool in the spittoon. No matter, “Burden” in its generic construct manages to raise the flag effectively on racism and a chapter of history that’s too close and relevant to the here and now.

Night Sweats

4 Mar

Edgy thriller with a pulse on the coronavirus scare

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With the coronavirus (and fear) spreading in the United States, “Night Sweats” checks in not only as a cautionary tale but also as a pretty taut thriller as well. The vast reaching plot centers on an infectious disease break out in New York City that while not a pandemic, confounds public health authorities among others. The lo-fi production casts an ambitious net and smartly makes the most of its cloistered locations—spartan millennial apartments, dive bars and the kind of generic office space that became its own character in Kitty Green’s “The Assistant”— framing it all in tight and embossing the emotional impact.

We catch up with a wide-eyed Yuri (Kyle DeSpiegler) as he meets Mary Kate (Mary Elaine Ramsey) a toothsome wait person at the hip haunt his roommate Jake (John Francomacaro) works at. Sparks fly and soon enough, Yuri and the coquettish object of his desire are back at his place and between the sheets. Handsome people in the throes of the ultimate pleasure are always a captivating spectacle, but before the rise to satisfaction can be notched, mood killing wails ripple down the hall from Jake’s room. The cause of the coitus interruptus? A satanic seizure replete with convulsive vomiting and eyes rolled back into the head and ghastly white. The two young lovers panic as most anyone would but at least have the presence to dial 911. In a freaky twist, the second Yuri hangs up the phone, a mysterious mountain of man claiming to be an EMT comes a knocking and attends to Jake. Just what he does in that brief interlude before the ambulance arrives is unclear and concerning to both Yuri and MK. Days later Jake’s dead, MK’s suddenly aloof and the restless Yuri uncovers a bug planted in Jake’s room inside a trophy from a self help company called True Healing. More cases of the illness crop up, health authorities (Allison Mackie as the lead) continue to pepper Yuri with questions, and Yuri, unsatisfied with the lack of answers, goes undercover as a new hire at True Healing.

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Rickety in construct, yet riveting in its enigmatic aura “Night Sweats” hits a few plausibility snags along the way. Treading on the notion that fact is stranger than fiction, before the credits roll we’re informed that the film’s based on true events. A delve into the the press notes tells us that one of the writers, Seth Panman, toiled at a shady self help firm that had some dubious endeavors in the works. “Night Sweats”’s clearly a jumping off from there and what holds Andrew Lyman-Clarke‘s ever expanding thriller together are the edgy performances by Ramsey as the barbed lure and DeSpiegler as the dude interrupted, with a can do attitude. The behind the scene stars that help sell it are the moody atmospheric score by John Kaefer that adds pins-and-needles to a scene and Hilarion Banks’s floral yet focused cinematography. It’s not fully incubated but “Night Sweats” does manage to get under your skin.

Emma.

27 Feb
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I always find it curious that “Emma” was the last novel Jane Austen wrote before her passing. “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” always felt more mature, wise and insightful. They’re also less gleeful and spry.

It’s important to note that the title of the film by Autumn de Wilde, tackling Austen in her feature debut, is “Emma.” with a period at the end of the title. One might think it’s to not to be confused with the 1996 version staring Gwyneth Paltrow, or maybe to simply inform cinema-goers that this is the definitive celluloid (well, digital) version – period! However you take it, de Wilde’s vision of 19th century English countryside is a rich one, rooted in details, period dress and the title character’s ever alluring array of earrings. One astute detail is the use of folding panel draft screens, each a piece of period art in their own right, positioned by the help to keep their wealthy estate owners warm as they relax in the living room gabbing and imbibing a cordial or, more mundanely, reading. In one scene, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) instructs the helping hands to move two such panels to exact locations to keep her father (the indomitable Bill Nighy) warm. The hyper (draft) sensitive effete is certainly snug and happy, but what Emma has more intentionally done is create space for her and her next-door neighbor (fields and sculpted gardens away), the overly solemn Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), to whisper privately about affairs of the heart.

Emma, it turns out, is a master manipulator, ever so prim on the outside but inside scripting the love lives of the young and unsuspecting roaming the quaint confines of the bucolic burg just a day’s jaunt from London. Those caught up in her matchmaking, besides Knightley, are her tag-along of lower social station, Harriet (a wonderful Mia Goth),  Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), a sensitive, hardworking farmer with a square jaw , the prideful world traveler Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Emma’s de facto social rival, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson). Most of Emma’s semi-well-intentioned plots (most with a modicum of personal gain attached) backfire with a dour muffled cough. Nothing in Austen’s very staid land ever erupts outwardly, though Flynn’s brooding Knightley feels like a bull in a narrow stall looking to explode. It’s a Heath Ledger-esque performance, understated yet thoroughly compelling. (Interestingly, Flynn in is slated to play rockers David Bowie and Ray Davies in upcoming projects.)

It’s hard to pick a shining star in de Wilde’s opulent period piece. Goth, Nighy and Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, a nonstop chatterbox as sweet as she is annoying, all add perfect bits of garnish to the Knightley-Emma Woodhouse tug-of-war of emotion and desire. Mark one thing: “Emma.” lifts Taylor-Joy over the top as a serious young performer in the ranks of Thomasin McKenzie (“Leave No Trace,” “Jojo Rabbit”) and Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird,” “Little Women”). Coincidentally, the name of her occult young woman in her breakthrough, Robert Egger’s “The Witch” (2015), was Thomasin, and she’ll star this year with McKenzie in the Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver,” Shaun of the Dead”) project “Last Night in Soho.” And as much as Joy-Taylor lifts the film with her ebullient, wide eyes that mask mixed feelings, credit for a work that feels like both a fairytale and a master painting goes to de Wilde – amazingly, at nearly 50, notching her first-time shot. The script by “The Luminaries” novelist Eleanor Catton, like Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” metes in just the right amount of modern female gaze without unsettling a single apple in Austen’s cart. Flynn and Taylor-Joy have their trajectories mapped, but it’s de Wilde (who got her detailed eye making videos for Beck and Jenny Lewis) that’s the eye-opener here, and the new hot one to watch.

 

Black History Month – Cambridge Notables

26 Feb

Black Bookmark Project highlights pioneers less known, but all worth taking a page from

An opportunity to remember William Henry Lewis, ‘great man’ of firsts

 

tmp-BHM1Joyce London Alexander, in an image from the Cambridge Black Trailblazers website.

This Black History Month sees the launch of the Cambridge Black Bookmark Project, giving young readers free bookmarks – photos on the front, biographies on the back – introducing more people to a generation of black trailblazers not yet given physical markers around the city.

The Cambridge Black Trailblazers project adds to and updates work begun by the Cambridge African American Heritage Alliance, which installed 20 markers citywide honoring the achievements of black leaders from the 1840s to World War II, said project coordinator James Spencer, representing a committee of another half-dozen people. The group printed 7,000 bookmarks, of which about 4,000 have been given to the school district. Others have gone to the City Council to hand out and to the families of the people being celebrated; a donation of up to 2,000 of the bookmarks to city libraries awaits permission, he said.

“This has been a labor of love … But this is just the beginning. In order to continue, the project will need additional resources,” said Spencer, a retired civil rights and diversity officer, describing plans for at least 20 bookmarks led by an initial seven.

Movers and shakers

The first batch includes Joyce London Alexander, who went from first black president of the CRLS student council to first black chief magistrate in the United States; Charles Leroy Gittens, the first black Secret Service agent and protector of U.S. presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gerald Ford before taking charge of all agency field offices; Elizabeth Rawlins, an educator who became a longtime dean at Simmons College; Leon West, who became famous as a chef in New Orleans; Roy Allen, a television producers and director who became the first black member of the Directors Guild of America; Henry Owens, the entrepreneur behind Green Moving; and civil rights activist Gertrude Wright Morgan, who recently got a street named after her in Canbridge Crossing – after work began on the trailblazers project.

“It is critically important that young people, as well as the larger Cambridge community, recognize the selfless and courageous contributions of these individuals in a generational period of painful discrimination,” Spencer said.

“This initial phase of the project was developed, researched, financed and launched by a committee of dedicated volunteers, with support from the Cambridge Historical Commission,” he said, calling sponsors – individual, corporate and philanthropic – vital to move the project forward from this hopeful start. Continue reading