Cold War

20 Jan

‘Cold War’: When Iron Curtain falls on love, you really can’t just sing your troubles away

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“Cold War,” that other gorgeous black-and-white film in a foreign language (opposite Oscar fave “Roma”), tells the tale of an improbable love made even more improbable by world-shaping events that unite and rip apart the lovers across decades, shifting borders and political ideologies. It’s heartbreaking, deep in romantic angst and propelled by sound and music.

The well-known subject of the title is the film’s driving force. We catch up after World War II with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) an accomplished pianist and musicologist wandering the Polish countryside recording song of the region, when he encounters Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young woman of the mountains with talent – and with a very dark past. It’s love at first note, but the two are torn apart by time, totalitarianism and station. She’s whisked off to a perform in a troupe entertaining the Russian upper brass under Stalin. He defects to the west, she even takes on work as an informant as Russia’s conformist tendrils wrap around and strangle the Polish spirit. Time and coincidence bring them back together for trysts, the passion etched upon their faces. They also take on other lovers and companions, but when they meet up in their old homeland, Yugoslavia or Paris, all that exists is each other.

The film, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (who won the 2015 Foreign Language Best Film   Oscar for his conflicted nun drama, “Ida”) wins primarily on the all-consuming performance by Kulig. Her Zula is aloof, enigmatic and sensual. It’s like looking at a young Catherine Deneuve – you can’t take your eyes off her, and you’re not exactly sure what she’ll do next. In an early 1960s Paris nightclub, when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” comes on the jukebox and, buzzed on bourbon and freed by the rock anthem, Zula takes over the club, a whirlwind of pixie dust that ends up sashaying across the bar top. It’s as infectious as it is outrageous. As Zula’s long-burning object of desire Wiktor, Kot’s no mere garnish; he has melancholy eyes that betrays his vulnerabilities. 

For some, the jumps in time and place between reunions and the personal and global events that fill those chasms might seem like too much for a love that has never been allowed to blossom, but that’s kind of the point of “Cold War.” It’s about a love that is incapable of being squelched no matter what is thrown at it – the Iron Curtain, nuclear proliferation, insidious spy games or government-sponsored hit squads, take your choice. Of course, the stark framing in black and white serves to emboss the improbable union. It’s got fairy tale trimmings and dreamily romantic gazes, but this is about as far from Hollywood as one can get and still be in love in every frame.

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Glass

17 Jan

Glass’: In face-off two decades in the making, Shyamalan reveals he’s lost his powers again

 

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Back in 2008 I just about threw in the towel on M. Night Shyamalan after the pointless “The Happening” made its way to the big screen. Never before had something so deadly but mysterious (was it the trees?) seemed so silly and inane – “Bird Box,” similar in concept, is a massive step up by comparison. “Signs” (2002) and “The Village” (2004) were big finale-twist flicks that tried too hard to emulate the skillful sleight of hand that Shyamalan’s classic “The Sixth Sense” did in 1999, but the artifice was obvious too early. “The Visit” (2015) resurrected my faith. It was something different, a horror-in-the-woods psychological thriller B movie with “American Gothic” granddad and grandma as class A homicidal nuts with warm smiles on their faces and cups of cider in their hands. “Split” (2016) seemed another quirky turn for Shyamalan akin to “The Visit,” as it focused on a disturbed young man (James McAvoy) who takes young women hostages, horrifies and fascinates them with his 20 or so personalities and ultimately mutilates them with a superhuman persona known as The Beast (both a physiological and psychological transformation). It felt like an intriguing one-off driven by a fantastic performance by McAvoy, showing range and humor you suspected he had but had yet to see – but wait, what’s that at the end? A tie back to Shyamalan’s 2000 superhero-among-us flick, “Unbreakable.”

If you missed “Split” but are a fan of “Unbreakable” I can give you the green light to proceed here and see “Glass” without hesitation. Bruce Willis is back as David, Philly’s working-class man of steel who, as the lone survivor of a massive train wreck, is somehow able to fall from great heights without a scratch. He’s still lurking on the streets in his green rain poncho, doing minor bouts of vigilante good and pissing off the police. Samuel L. Jackson, as the evil mastermind who blew up the train in “Unbreakable,” reprises his title character, Mr. Glass. It’s a nice reunion, but what do these rivals have to do with McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb? Well, Glass has been incarcerated in an asylum and drugged up for 19 years, while David, investigating a slew of cheerleader massacres, susses out the Beast & Co., nabbing him on the cusp of his next slaughter; for the effort, he and The Beast end up with Glass in the ridiculously low-security asylum. Enter Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who for some reason has three days to convince the trio that their superhuman skills are delusions – and then, it’s implied, they all get to go free? Cockamamie convolution to be sure, but Glass, more obsessed with comic books and superhero history than Kevin Smith, believes his arch-villain magnum opus will be to break David and The Beast out and have them wage battle on the new Osaka skyscraper towering above the Philly skyline. (I kept thinking Nakatomi Plaza, more a lingering effect from my repeated Christmas viewings of “Die Hard” than Willis’ presence.)

There’s more to the too-long-to-get-to-the-point buildup than I care to explain, including the fact David has a son (Spencer Treat Clark) and that one of the survivors from “Split” (Anya Taylor-Joy) shows up; while they’re fine, they only add more stumbling blocks to an already clunky confluence. (I never got why Willis’ David always wore that vinyl rain poncho. To hide his identity? A thick vinyl rain jacked is a sauna, and too flimsy and vision-obstructing for real combat.) It’s not that “Glass” doesn’t entertain, but it does so mostly on the performance by McAvoy and, to a lesser extent, Jackson and Paulson, who’s not given much to work with. Willis strangely mumbles his through the film and never raises a brow above nonchalance, even when David first encounters The Beast. The most eye-catching of all is Shyamalan, who in a brief Hitchcock insertion makes Quentin Tarantino look like Peter Finch – “stilted” is the word. The film wraps with what’s supposed to be a cathartic coming together, but even that, orchestrated in a Philly train terminal with folks having a universal iPhone epiphany, makes about as much sense as the whispering trees in “The Happening.”

Mandy

17 Jan

‘Mandy’: Hunting for revenge in the woods from hell raisers that forced him to see red

 

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Barry Manilow’s timeless classic will never sound the same after you drink in this midnight cult curio that’s the bloody union of arthouse horror and a bad ’70s head trip. You can already stream it for a fee on Amazon, but the rich artistic palette of red and black (it would make a wicked, stomach-churning double feature with the recent “Suspiria” reimagining) and Nic Cage’s gurgling snarls are best suited for a full, immersive theater experience. “Mandy” is wicked mayhem that’s certainly not for all, and the unwary curious will undoubtably have to avert their eyes during the graphic scenes of ritualized sacrifice, but it’s getting served up regardless for a three-day weekend run at The Brattle Theatre starting Friday (late-night shows only).

Shot in Brussels, but ostensibly taking place in the cold, remote hills of someplace like New Hampshire in the early 1980s, “Mandy” pulls on a battery of horror-genre tropes without feeling ersatz or anemic. Much of that’s due to Cage’s overstuffed performance and director Panos Cosmatos’ relish for revenge, rage and raw imagery. Like “Last House on the Left,” Cage’s Red Miller and his gal – the subject of the inspired title – Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are a relatively chill couple living a spare simple life out in the woods. He logs, she’s an artist. But one day the leader of a nomadic cult known as the Children of the New Dawn (Linus Roache, from TV’s “Vikings”) catches a glimmer of Mandy and decides he wants “that.” The baddie here doesn’t have a cool name like Silas (like the cult leader from recent Nicole Kidman cop drama “Destroyer”) but Jeremiah Sand – perhaps uninspired names and titles are a means to lull before the spectacular Grand Guignol to come? But he’s far more the real deal when it comes to the macabre, be it mad, prophetic pontifications or slow, bleed-out crucifixions. Needless to say, Jeremiah, his followers and a loyal pack of S&M-clad minions whipping through the woods on dirt bikes and ATVs get their hooks into Mandy, which naturally sets off Red. 

Cage is perfectly over the top as the distraught, rampaging force of nature, and Cosmatos (his late father, George, directed the neo-classic western“Tombstone”) articulates every arterial spray and flesh-piercing plunge with prolonged, agonizing effect. Cinematically, the lush, dark camera work by Benjamin Loeb and the haunting score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose CV includes “Arrival,” goes far to sell the delectably gonzo bloodbath.  Between brutal beatdowns and bind-torture tie-ups, there’s a smattering of hallucinogenic drug trips (most not taken by choice)  and plenty of death metal to underscore the backwoods mayhem. If that’s not enough, there’s sword fighting with chainsaws, with one opponent wielding a woefully undersized blade. The political or theological agenda of the Children of the New Dawn is never clear, but that’s beside the point; like “Suspiria” or “Race with the Devil” (1975), it’s all about giving it back to the occult freaks so gleefully demonic and drenched in innocent blood.

Between Red’s acumen for bloodletting and Cosmatos’ pushing of boundaries in glamour gore, “Mandy” is poised for near-instant cult classic status. Sadly, not enough time’s allotted to Riseborough, who’s in something of a breakout season with this, “Nancy” and “The Death of Stalin.” The film revolves around her, though she’s never really here. And then there’s that Manilow song; go see “Mandy” and then cue up Barry’s song and see if its texture, tone and tenor isn’t knocked off its old familiar base.

Get Luce

16 Jan

Luce prepares opening on Shepard Street, lighter without heat of wood-fired drama

 

Luce is expected to open as early as this week on Shepard Street. (Photo: Tom Meek)

After a public battle with the neighborhood and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on air purifying exhaust systems for smoke from its wood-fired grill, Shepard – an instant culinary darling for its inventive small plates menu and whole, wood-grilled chicken – closed at the end of last year. It wasn’t so much an end as a chance to reinvent the concept around a similar menu: René Becker opened Shepard with longtime area restaurateur Susan Regis in 2015; Regis bowed out, but not before installing an Italian brick pizza oven that will be key in Becker’s new endeavor.

The new eatery, in an updated facade just off Massachusetts Avenue on Shepard Street, is called Luce, after Becker’s elementary school-aged daughter, Lucy. The menu concocted with chef Scott Jones – already online – has Shepard-esque small plates, lobster salads, fava bean purée and tuna conserva. There are pizzas (fried calamari, pancetta and mushroom) and pasta dishes, half and whole sizes, and bigger plates of New York strip and sea bass. One might argue that the pizza and pasta dishes echo too much the offerings at nearby Giulia, which has lines out the door by 5 p.m., and Temple Bar, which has long offered pizza as a staple (a pizza oven fire a few years back almost shuttered the biz) and recently added homemade pasta dishes. Still, the other culinary offerings around the edges promise something new, and the mixology concoctions and wine list at Shepard were always top flight. It’s unclear how much of the interior is being resculpted; the old Chez Henri boasted a cozy bar, while Shepard was a singular open space where the bar flowed into the restaurant.

Becker is also owner of two nearby Hi-Rise bakeries. One classic at those eat-in, grab-out spots is the sweet and salty butter – unique and luscious in so many ways – made onsite. It was served with bread and dinner crackers at Shepard. One can only hope it returns at Luce. 

Luce is slated to open as early as this week.

How Big is Too Big

16 Jan

Groups’ rankings set climate as top priority, but forum discussion still turns to housing

 

Upward of 150 people gathered Saturday for a citizen-run community forum at the Citywide Senior Center. (Photo: Charlie Teague)

Though affordable housing was the most talked-about topic at Saturday’s “How Big is Too Big” public forum, it was climate issues – the environment, trees and parks – that were identified as Cambridge’s top priority by vote of participating neighborhood groups.

Close behind, tied with seven votes each from neighborhood group, were the topics of “sustainable planning/development” (including zoning and questions of the pace and size of development) and “quality of life” (seeing some overlap with climate issues, this covered concerns over parks and open spaces, light and noise, garbage, street drugs, homelessness and a diminished arts scene).

Housing, as its own topic, was officially third tier – tied with the topics of “city responsiveness” and “neighborhoods” (referring to preservation and civic engagement issues) with five votes each. Advance publicity for the event suggested housing might be key, as organizers noted concerns about figures estimates from the citywide planning process Envision Cambridge that under current zoning there will be 20,800 more Cantabrigians by 2030, and certain zoning changes could raise that to 24,300. That bigger figure is a 21.5 percent increase over the current 113,000 population, and its 12,300 residential units added to the current 44,000 is growth of 28 percent.

Also participating were citywide organizations focused on housing, including A Better Cambridge, which circulated a pamphlet about the city’s “Affordable Housing Zoning Overlay” with data about equitable distribution of affordable housing units throughout the neighborhoods. The Port has the highest amount of the city’s affordable housing units at 34.5 percent, the group noted, while West Cambridge has the least at 1.3 percent.  

The two-hour forum, held at the Citywide Senior Center across from City Hall, drew upward of 150 people – including five city councillors – as drawn together by the the Livable Cambridge discussion group and organizers shared with the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association, including Suzanne Preston Blier. Ahead of the forum, Blier said its key moments would be when participating groups presented three to four issues each considers vital for a more livable Cambridge, which could be used to prioritize politically. 

“We all share many of the same concerns,” Blier said, “and we believe that by working together not only will our citizens have a stronger voice, but Cambridge itself will be stronger.”

Big event

The forum was laid out job-fair fashion, with neighborhood associations hosting tables with fliers boosting causes – groups from the Cambridge Highlands and East Cambridge, for instance, served up a stark flier opposing a proposed Eversource power substation at Fulkerson Street. Refreshments were close by.

The meeting kicked off with HSNA member Nicola A. Williams speaking briefly to the desire for socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural and age diversity in the city and asking all to join her in the mantra that “all opinions are valued” and a reminder to “respect differences.” Blier, a preservation activist and architectural historian, ran through a slideshowilluminating the surveyed goals for a “Livable Cambridge” from the approximately dozen neighborhood associations in attendance. Affordability, sustainability and the need for more green open space were highlights.

Comedian and former candidate for lieutenant governor Jimmy Tingle spoke to close the Saturday event. (Photo: Tom Meek)

About an hour in, representatives from the neighborhood associations were summoned to talk about their organizations and goals; the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association seized the opportunity to announce that its Thursday meeting would discuss congestion and noise from the Boston University Bridge rotary, which worsened with completion of the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge project in August.

A brief audience Q&A focused on affordability, inclusion and high rents, residential and commercial, with the tripling of rent that shuttered Crema Cafe in Harvard Square still a raw wound.“Development can’t be market driven,” speakers said several times. Transportation was another major topic of conversation; trees and the diminishing tree canopy – the top polled priority of the neighborhood groups – registered a distant third in the conversation.

Not quite the end

Comedian and former candidate for lieutenant governor Jimmy Tingle spoke to close the event, and people filed out abuzz, with some wondering what had been accomplished. (Organizers referred to the Saturday forum as “setting the table for more interaction and discussion.”)

The event’s meaning remained somewhat open to interpretation. In a follow-up discussion online Sunday, Blier underlined that there was “a big message [in] this input and insight from current residents in our different neighborhoods” – but where some heard a conversation still dominated by the need for affordable housing that suggests the need for more development, she saw an answer to “the city … moving willy-nilly in the Envision effort to upzone to add more and higher developments for commerce and for housing.”

“Note climate and overdevelopment are at the top,” she said, pointing to the formal tallies of issues from neighborhood groups.

Destroyer

12 Jan

‘Destroyer’: Limping through the grit of L.A., Kidman’s cop intends to see an ugly job done

 

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“Destroyer” may be the bleakest cop drama to come around since Don Johnson puked up his guts as a booze-addled cop chasing after white supremacists in John Frankenheimer’s “Dead Bang” (1989). The boilerplate’s fairly similar, as we catch up with Nicole Kidman’s Erin Bell, a detective passed out in a dust-streaked car under an L.A. freeway. Gaunt and chalky, with hair matted and frayed, she looks like she’s been left in the desert to die. The radio squawks and Kidman’s trademark translucent blue eyes – encircled by bloodshot rims – open slowly. Erin can barely extricate herself from the vehicle, let alone stagger down a desolate throughway to a murder scene where she’s poorly received by the cops already on site.

Erin’s jarring wobble is so disjointed and pronounced you wonder if she’s wickedly hungover or maybe had the shit kicked out of her. The truth is a good bit of both, and it’s a regular way of life for Erin, who’s hard to like and hard to avert your eyes from. How did we get here, how can such a shambling wreck remain on the force? The answers come in carefully meted strokes, mostly in flashbacks. Seventeen years earlier, as a rookie, Erin partnered with an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan, the Winter Soldier in the “Captain America” films) to go undercover to take down a criminal cult leader named Silas (Toby Kebbell, who’s weak tea compared with Charles Manson). She also has a teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), and the two don’t get along whatsoever. Needless to say, back in the present Silas has resurfaced and Erin will do whatever it takes to bring him down, including giving a happy ending to an informant and hitting every dive watering hole the way other cops frequent doughnut shops. 

Director Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight” and “Aeon Flux”) seems to be aiming for “gritty” in every frame. It feels heavy-handed from the get-go, but Kidman’s complex and nuanced performance and Theodore Shapiro’s edgy, haunting score score help sell it beyond its derivative trappings. It’s  amazing to drink in the tall, glamorous Kidman with such a dour, beaten-down countenance. Massive gobs of makeup must have been in play, because nowhere before has such natural comeliness been so sabotaged, aside from Charlize Theron playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” (2003). That turn earned Theron an Oscar, and Kidman’s nearly as on target here as jumps into the middle of a shootout with semiautomatics cocked, akin to Patty Hearst in her now infamous SLA pose, or pistol whips a Beverly Hills ne’er-do-well with ties to Silas. The film’s not so much a drama about a rogue cop as a showcase for Kidman’s range. It barely fires on that first chamber, but hits the mark on the latter.

Remembering a solid citizen

12 Jan

Paul Wilson: Big guy with an even bigger heart whose memory will outlast headlines’ violence

The life of Paul Wilson, 60, will be celebrated Jan. 26 in Danvers. (Photos courtesy of Cindy Amor)

Last week a brutal crime took from our city one of its kindest, gentlest souls. Paul Wilson, 60, was a stand-up human: generous, respectful, friendly and imbued with a deep sense of humor.

I knew Paul on and off for two decades but didn’t know of his death until the day after the Jan. 2 assault on him in Danehy Park, which has yet to be solved. I was in New York on a business trip when my wife texted and told me to check the news back home. The thing that struck me in all the reports was the prominent underscoring of Paul’s appearance – 6-foot-6, and wearing shorts and a red winter jacket in the dreary cold of the New England winter.

Anyone who ever met Paul knew that wearing shorts in the dead of winter was his thing. I never asked Paul why he did it, because as a guy who wore shorts well into November and slapped them on after the first thaw, I got it. And it was shorts and not our mutual employment at Lotus/IBM that brought us together. I was playing Ultimate Frisbee at Danehy Park, where Paul was on his usual evening walk, and he paused to take in our game. He approached to ask about the rules and I said, “Hey, you’re the only guy in the office who wears shorts more than me.” We learned that we lived close by and, when IBM shipped us both 30 miles west to Littleton, sometimes commuted together. I’m a talker, and so was Paul – we talked some politics, and at the time of our commutes we were both going through the loss of our parents. He also loved good food and off-the-beaten path establishments that stood the test of time. The Out of the Blue restaurant in Davis Square was a favorite of his, and we often had a post-commute snack at the under-the-radar Italian eatery Gran Gusto, across from his apartment, or a beer at Paddy’s Lunch just up the street. 

Paul Wilson in a Danvers High School yearbook.

In reaching out to other people for this piece, including Carla Bekeritis and Cindy Amor, who went to Danvers High with Paul, the unanimous sentiment was that he was a deeply loved and valued member of the community. Paul attended the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and studied music, but like many from that era with creative leanings and sharp minds, he found his way into software and worked for IBM for nearly 30 years.

I last saw Paul three days before the new year on Massachusetts Avenue outside Changsho restaurant – it was 20-something degrees out, but he was wearing shorts and telling me proudly that he was now a card-carrying member of the Blue Bikes share; IBM had landed him back in Cambridge for work, and that was his new means of commuting. We made a pledge to get together soon. Soon would obviously not be soon enough.

Paul was a big guy, with an even bigger heart. Justice and closure on the mystery of his death can’t come soon enough. Still, though the nature of the crime may be what seizes headlines, in time that will fade and his memory will carry on in the hearts of those he touched. 

A celebration of Paul’s life will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 26 at the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church, 323 Locust St., Danvers. Expressions of sympathy may be made in Paul’s memory to Doctors Without Borders.

A community meeting about the homicide investigation and safety concerns is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Peabody School, 70 Rindge Ave., North Cambridge. Representatives of the City Manager’s Office, Cambridge Police Department, and the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office will be on hand for questions.