The Shape of Water

9 Dec

‘The Shape of Water’: Underwater love tale is a finely acted and truly immersive fantasy

 

Guillermo del Toro returns to fine form with this fairy tale-cum-horror story that effectively echoes the texture, mood and style of his 2006 gem, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Appetizing as that sounds, “The Shape of Water” doesn’t quite have the fullness or magical immersion of the Mexican auteur’s crowning achievement (to date) – but that’s a mighty yardstick for any film to be measured by.

Set in Cold War-era Baltimore, the narrative flows through the mundane life of a demure, mute cleaning woman named Elsa (Sally Hawkins, who lays it all on the line and should be recognized for such a fine effort), who we learn grew up an orphan and was abused as a child. Given all that, Elsa’s got pretty neat digs above a classic nickelodeon (and del Toro has fun with the marquee and features it plays) and works the nightshift at a secretive military installation where all kinds of strange experiments growl and bark from behind steel doors – often requiring a SWAT team of cleaners to mop up the bloody aftermath.

Locked behind one such portal is an amphibious humanoid referred to as “The Asset,” something of a sleeker version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon if crossed with Abe Sapien from del Toro’s raucously fun “Hellboy” films. Chained and shackled in a pool, the creature is routinely beaten and electrocuted by a square-jawed operative named Strickland (Michael Shannon) who fished it out of the murky waters of South America. Strickland goes after his charge with all the oppressive superiority of a plantation owner, and Shannon’s natural southern drawl helps sell the notion. If there’s any question as to what del Toro is aiming for, there’s a scene at a diner where a black couple are not allowed to sit at the counter and Elsa’s next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), exists deep in the closet and is shunned regularly for his quirky “difference.” Then there’s Elsa’s understanding work partner, Zelda (the ever-affable Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman. In short, everyone around Elsa who gets her is disenfranchised or oppressed. They’re a merry band of outliers, a not so subtle sociopolitical subtext – that feels a bit too strapped on – and the most robust and likable of all that come across the screen.  Continue reading

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Wodner Wheel

9 Dec

 

You know how it goes with Woody Allen films (at least since the mid-1990s, around the time of his tabloid break from Mia Farrow): one a year, with every third effort being a worthy nugget, preceded by and antecedent by two duds. Just take the electric “Blue Jasmine” (2013), which rightly garnered the royal Cate Blanchett an Oscar, followed up by the sluggish “Magic in the Moonlight,” which squandered the talents of two Oscar winners, and “Irrational Man,” the unholy marriage of Phillip Roth and Alfred Hitchcock. “Cafe Society” (2016) marked an up, which leads us to Allen’s latest, “Wonder Wheel.” Does it follow the model? Yes, but not entirely.

A key narrative device in “Wonder Wheel” are asides to the audience by a hunky Coney Island lifeguard named Mickey (Justin Timberlake) who patrols the shores sometime after the end of the Second World War, as America sits perched on the cusp of prosperity. Hope and prospect seem to be everywhere for everybody, except a merry-go-round operator named Humpty (Jim Belushi, interestingly cast and auspiciously named) and his wife, Ginny (Kate Winslet), a failed actress turned grousing waitress. They’re both on second marriages; he has problems with the sauce, and her preteen son from a previous marriage has an affinity for lighting impromptu fires. There’s also the matter of Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (an ebullient Juno Temple), whom Humpty disowned after she ran off and married a Miami gangster. Shortly into the film Carolina returns, seeking refuge with the desire to go to night school to become a teacher. It makes for a happy reunion until mob heavies from Miami show up looking for their boss’ dame.

Despite the myriad moving parts and personalities, “Wonder Wheel” is unquestionably Winslet’s “Blue Jasmine” opportunity; the entirety of the drama flows through Ginny, the cumulative angst, anxiety and ephemeral moments of joy, erupting through her in deeply emotive bursts. Like “Jasmine” too, “Wheel” bears the indelible imprint of a Tennessee Williams drama, replete with claustrophobic quarters, grand dreams, dank, rife sexual desire and assured tragedy. Allen’s orchestration may feel a bit stagey, but it works effectively to emboss the moments of intimacy and confrontation that come mostly in tightly tied tandems, one melting into the other or the other laying the tinder for the other to ignite.

It takes a while, but we find out Ginny and Mickey are having a thing under the boardwalk. He’s an attentive lover and earnestly entertains the notion of dropping out of grad school (he served in the South Pacific and now wants to be a playwright) and running off with Ginny, saving her from a loveless marriage. Then enters Carolina. The attraction between the ingénue and lifeguard is fast and instantaneous and happens right before Ginny’s eyes when she introduces the two during a chance encounter on the boardwalk. If ever there was an emotional house of cards, this is it, and not all the players in the incestuous love triangle are fully aware of others’ involvement – Greek playwrights would approve. Continue reading

The films of Jean-Pierre Melville

3 Dec

6 Films To Celebrate French Noir Master Jean-Pierre Melville’s Centennial At The MFA

Serge Reggiani in Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Doulos," released in 1962. (Courtesy Rialto Pictures)closemore

If he were alive today, Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the great faces of French cinema, would be 100 years old. (He was born in 1917 and died of a heart attack in 1973). To commemorate the filmmaker’s 100th birthday, the Museum of Fine Arts is running a retrospective of the auteur’s work.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name (and too many Americans are), Melville minted chic, noir-ish gangster flicks that have been widely cited for their influence and echoed in the hip, popular works of Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann and John Woo. Melville also was a contemporary of, and collaborator with, many of the iconic directors of the French New Wave in the ’50s and ’60s — namely Jean-Luc Godard — and employed many of the great French actors of the time, most notably Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve.

Now revered for his unique style and approach (he made the fedora and the trench coat as synonymous with the French gangster genre as dusters and 10-gallon hats are to the American Western) Melville almost didn’t become a filmmaker. Born an Alsatian Jew by the surname Grumbach, he fled to England after the 1940 German invasion of France. Later, he returned as a member of the French Resistance. His nom de guerre was indeed copped from the “Moby Dick” author, who the young freedom fighter held in high regard. After the war, Melville applied to become an assistant director, but his license application was denied so he launched his own production company. The rest, so to say, is cinematic history. Melville produced a spartan 14 films — nearly all fine cut gems. Continue reading

Update on Evergood Market

3 Dec

 

The storefront and fixtures at Evergood Market remain intact at 1676 Massachusetts Ave. nearly a year and a half after the store closed. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The Evergood Market space, empty for almost a year and a half on Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter squares, is being held so it can become another neighborhood grocery store, an owner said.

The 1676 Massachusetts Ave. property was not being actively marketed because Stone Investment Holdings is in negotiations with a butcher and grocer to occupy the space, but specifics couldn’t be given because terms and bank loans were all in flux, said Nancy Stone, one of the principals of Stone Holdings.

When asked about the fate of the property if the deal feel through, Stone said she was committed to bringing a similar business to the space – around 8,600 square feet between the ground floor and a basement.

Evergood shuttered in July 2016 after 67 years of operation, and residents of the Agassiz, North Commons, Radcliffe and Avon Hill neighborhoods have been wondering what will become of the space.

Residents have been frustrated by months of non-responses from the property owners and managers. Some who knew grocers interested in the space shortly after the store closed told identical stories of being stymied when attempting to make contact.

“The whole thing is indeed a mystery,” said Pattie Heyman, a Neighborhood 9 resident. “Why this store would be left almost a year and a half in the same condition with no cleaning up and a total eyesore is beyond my comprehension.”

Stone Holdings also owns nearby properties housing a Starbucks and the swank eatery Shepard. Marc Levin, part of the management team at Chestnut Hill Realty, acts as the leasing agent, but repeated inquiries as to the status of the property and its availability were ignored by Levin. His assistant said the property was not Chestnut Hill business and that Levin would need to respond to the query directly. (Initially the property’s availability was advertised in the window listed by UBA Realty, but eventually it came down. A call to UBA pointed Cambridge Day to Levin.)

The store’s founding family, the Scholnicks, sold the store 16 years ago to manager William R. Carr. Two years later, Carr died. His wife, Diana Carr, took over the store and its financial challenges, but aging equipment and deepening financial pressures took their toll, leading her to close the store.

The unchanged storefront and lingering fixtures inside serve as a reminder of the loss to the community. “As a regular customer I miss a grocery where I can pick up food to make dinner,” resident Sarah Block said.

The nearest grocery stores are Star Markets on Beacon Street in Somerville and in Porter Square.

Battle Over Bike Lanes in Cambridge

3 Dec

 

Fritz Donovan, presiding officer of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, speaks at a Wednesday group meeting on bicycle concerns. (Photos: Tom Meek)

A neighborhood group gathered and voted Wednesday seemingly to form a committee urging city officials to reevaluate and fix recently installed bike lanes it felt weren’t addressing traffic-safety goals. It was similar to the conclusion of a Monday meeting held by a different group.

There was overlap in attendance between the Monday “Safe Streets for All” meeting in East Cambridge and the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association meeting held Wednesday, but Fritz Donovan, the neighborhood group’s presiding officer, said this was “a neighborhood initiative that had been set up before.” More than 60 people attended the earlier meeting; nearly 100 gathered Wednesday at a Spaulding Hospital meeting room, including association members, bicyclists and other concerned citizens.

After many speakers and a near-unanimous association vote to set up a committee, there was little time to discuss how the two groups might collaborate or cooperate in getting more bicyclist traffic enforcement, “revisiting” the installed bike lanes on Brattle and Cambridge streets and playing a bigger role in future installations. Continue reading

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

18 Nov

 

Director Martin McDonagh, a playwright best known for such dark comedies as “The Pillowman” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” put film audiences on pleasurable, if uneasy, heel with his cinematic crossovers “In Bruges” (2008) and “Seven Psychopaths” (2012). Humor amid violent doings – the graphicness of which you couldn’t make happen in the center of a stage – was the takeaway from those first two films; Tarantino meets the Coen brothers is in the ballpark, and what a glorious one it is. But McDonagh’s vision and style is something of its own, and it operates on its own bloody terms. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is more of the same, and a bit of a feminist anthem that arrives coincidentally, and poetically, as entertainment heavies including Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. are eviscerated for lewd and criminal sexual behavior.

As if a Coen influence was not enough, the film stars Frances McDormand, who ruled the roost in the brothers’ masterworks “Blood Simple” (1984) and “Fargo” (1996), for which she won an Oscar. (She’s also married to Joel Coen). Here McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a steely eyed woman who’s responsible for the three billboards of the film’s overly long title – and something of a bother to the town. Against blood-red backdrops the billboards say “Still No Arrests?”; “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”; and “Raped While Dying.” They concern the death of Mildred’s daughter, which has gone unsolved for months. Mildred blames the town’s beloved sheriff, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, able to keep pace admirably with McDormand). Continue reading

Justice League

18 Nov

 

The new super adventure inspirationally labeled “Justice League” is an extremely crowded affair littered with jumps in plot, and things end up exactly as one might expect: in a giant CGI beatdown with an arch-villain. Still, after the turgid “Batman v Superman” it’s good to see Zach Snyder fit a lot into a neat two hours, and finally do justice to the floundering DC Comics franchise. (An encouraging trend, considering the sharp and fun “Wonder Woman” directed by Patty Jenkins.)

Things pick up in the immediate aftermath of “BvS,” with Superman (Henry Cavill) still dead or comatose and his mortal darling Lois Lane (Amy Adams) burdened by grief and suffering reporter’s block. That leaves fellow “Leaguers” Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) to fend for the world as alien ghouls with dragonfly wings descend upon the planet in slow strokes, kidnapping folks. Batman (what is it with these movies where Christian Bale and Affleck talk in constipated growls from behind the mask, but are smoothly eloquent in Bruce Wayne mode?) deduces astutely that the nasty bug-beings are part of a bigger plot – to unite the three Mother Boxes (like the Infinity Gems over in the Marvel Universe) and give an entity known as Steppenwolf – not to be confused with the band founded by John Kay (“Born to be Wild”) or the novel by the tortured German novelist, Hermann Hesse – the ultimate power to terraform the earth and wipe out humankind. Continue reading