The 15:17 to Paris

11 Feb

 

Much will be made of Clint Eastwood’s decision to use non-actors to play themselves in “The 15:17 to Paris,” a story of American heroism abroad, when two servicemen on leave and a friend thwarted an August 2015 terrorist attack on a train. The trio acted unselfishly, out of genuine concern for the lives of others – it’s the kind of stuff movies are made of.

Eastwood, who’s heading toward 90, has seen it all before, starring as the “Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, then making his own westerns (“Unforgiven”) and other films with subject matter ranging from the afterlife (“Hereafter”) to female boxing (“Million Dollar Baby”) and the end of Apartheid-cum-rugby (“Invictus”), as well as engaging in jingoistic flag waving, as many said of his depiction of American marksman Chris Kyle in “American Sniper” (2015) or his appearance at the Republican National Convention to help presidential candidate Mitt Romney challenge Barrack Obama, talking to that now infamous “empty chair.” Continue reading

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Porter Square Alterations

3 Feb

 

Planned changes in Porter Square allow left turns from White Street and close one shopping plaza exit. (Image: City of Cambridge Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department)

Traffic safety improvements in Porter Square would remove the pedestrian island where Somerville Avenue feeds into Massachusetts Avenue; close an exit from the mall allowing for a left-hand turn onto Massachusetts Avenue; and make the left turn from Massachusetts Avenue onto Somerville Avenue a single, dedicated left lane, replacing a center southbound lane that can be either left or straight.

The goal is to simplify the nest of intersections surrounding the mall and T stop and make it safer for all – drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department representatives said. The current five-phase traffic signal cycle (including one for pedestrians only and another to leave the mall parking lot) would be replaced by a simpler three-phase cycle.

The changes, intended to be low-cost and and come as soon as spring or summer, were shared Thursday with around 100 people gathered in University Hall at Lesley University, presented by Phil Goff of Alta Planning and city engineer Patrick Baxter. Continue reading

The Post

18 Jan

 

This Steven Spielberg flashback to tumultuous times of government transparency and freedom of the press as hot-button issues is not only a nostalgic and cautionary rewind, but a haunting reflection of where we find ourselves today. Before it broke Watergate, The Washington Post (“The Post” of the title) found itself on the edge of extinction in the wake of the publisher’s suicide and his widow’s struggles against a chauvinistic landscape and lure of corporate cash.

As dire as that all may sound, the core of “The Post” concerns itself more with journalistic integrity and the onus to inform the public. Shades of “All the President’s Men” (1976) and “Spotlight” (2015) run deeper than just sheer thematic similarity – there’s an actual blood tie in Josh Singer, an Oscar winner for “Spotlight” who partners with Liz Hannah on the “Post” script, and the Watergate break-in, the source of much journalistic scrutiny in “All the President’s Men,” is where “The Post” so poetically ends. Both “Presidents’s Men” and “Post” prominently feature legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee who, no matter who’s playing him, commands the newsroom with dignity and a wry dash of tough love. In the 1976 film he’s played with gruff, stoic smoldering by Jason Robards, who rightly won an Oscar for the portrayal; in Spielberg’s prequel of sorts, he’s played with equal effectiveness by the affable Tom Hanks. The Hanks Bradlee soaks up more screen time, but, like Robards, the two-time Oscar winner is blessed with a meticulous script and a top-notch cast to play off – an embarrassment of riches, if ever there was one. Continue reading

Phantom Thread

12 Jan

 

Food and appetite play key roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” which allegedly is the last appearance we’ll see from thespian great Daniel Day-Lewis. “Thread” is a strange period piece and not, on paper, the type of film you’d think Day-Lewis would go out on. But keep in mind this is a flick by PTA, one of the most meticulous filmmakers of his time, if not all time – “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Master” are among his many gems – and it’s a gasp to behold in composition alone.

The time is 1950s London, where haut fashion is defined by designers who create dresses and gowns for wealthy clients. Think of it as going to Versace or Wang’s house to get a gown tailor-made by the name-brander themselves. One such couturier, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is so fastidious and OCD that when we meet him, he’s daintily snipping every protruding nose hair before tucking his button-down into his pants with painfully diligent care, so as to not cause an unseemly fold or crease. Appearance and posture is everything. Then it’s on to breakfast in a sunny anteroom of Woodcock’s stately London townhouse, where the dressmaker sips tea gingerly and nibbles on pastries as he goes about his sketches. With him are his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and latest conquest (Camilla Rutherford) – a much younger woman treated as a hanger-on who’s on the way out. When the wholesome ingenue clangs her silverware once too much for Reynolds’ concentration and he chides her for the unconscionable and incessant interruptions, she, knowing full well of her fate and tired of being ignored, raises her voice. Reynolds barely looks across the table and, with cold, restrained calm, says, “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation.” This is a cue to his loyal sis to clean up his romantic mess and allow him to get on with business.

The next young muse Reynolds has for breakfast is a chestnut-haired lass by the name of Alma (Vicky Krieps). They don’t eat together, but she takes his breakfast order at an inn in the British countryside. It’s also the first time we see Reynolds’ face light up (he orders Welsh rarebit, sausage, eggs, biscuit, toast, jam and butter, and so on – enough to feed a small village, and an obvious metaphor for his consuming desire). The two become lovers, but the relationship does not proceed as the others. Alma is cagey beyond what her porcelain innocence would imply, and the fact that she doesn’t knuckle under to Reynolds’ usual controlling tactics rattles him. It’s also here that we learn Reynolds’ client base has begun to erode. All is not well in the house of Woodcock, and Cyril, ever alert to the unhappy undercurrents, tries to keep the seams from bursting. Quietly sinister parlor games ensue, and Alma attempts to seize the upper hand by frying up a few unfriendly omelettes. The tone feels dialed in from another movie, but Anderson, ever the master of continuity and flow, holds it all together. Continue reading

Neon Blaze

12 Jan

 

Kensho Technology’s sign over 44 Brattle St., Harvard Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The bidirectional bike lane on Brattle Street has company in controversy since Kensho Technologies, a growing player in the machine learning and analytics market targeting the finance, health care and national security sectors, has alerted residents and visitors to its new digs at 44 Brattle St. by erected a giant, electric blue neon sign – an intensely bright beacon that one passer-by described as an “optical oddity.”

Nowhere else in the historically zoned Harvard Square are there any such stark illuminations. The Kensho moniker stands out even more against the sheer spareness of the glass-encased building it occupies and the wintertime darkness that consumes Brattle Street at night.

The sign went up just over a week ago.

According to Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, it is not in violation of any code or ordinance. “The Kensho sign was reviewed by [Community Development and Inspectional Services] and found to conform with the provisions of the sign code. The City Sports signs on the exterior of the building will be replaced with Kensho signs also,” Sullivan said, referring to the remains of the sporting goods store that closed all of its 26 stores in 2015.

“The other issue,” he pointed out, “is the commission’s lack of jurisdiction over interior features generally.”

The city has lagged in writing and adopting coherent outdoor-lighting laws since invasive light complaints came before the City Council and city planners at least a decade ago; the lack of ability to limit illumination leaking from building interiors has been cited by many as a weakness of the most recent efforts. In September, a despairing councillor said the city would be better off adopting a resident-written law from 2013.

Some are concerned about the precedent set by the tech company’s branding. “Kensho’s new neon window sign points to the need to reconsider standards for both exterior and interior signage in the Harvard Square Conservation District,” said vice mayor Jan Devereux, who believed a study group was in process to review the conservation district’s guidelines.

The lights can be dimmed, Kensho said. But inside its offices, workers seemed literally above any complaints.

“We hadn’t had any such feedback as of yet,” said Bhavesh Dayalji, head of client operations for the company. “We’re happy to be part of revitalizing Harvard Square, as more and more retail spaces are left empty. We’re also one of the largest employers of engineers in the Cambridge community and excited about some of the plans we have for the future that will benefit the wider Cambridge community.”

Most innovation ventures in Cambridge settle in and around Kendall Square, and much of the office space that Kensho now occupies, as Dayalji points out, had been vacant for some time.

One observer in Harvard Square seemed to appreciate what Kensho had installed, calling it “a sign of the times. You’ve gotta keep up.”

 

Downsizing

24 Dec

 

You know that viral tiny house movement where folk show off cozy, cute mini abodes with all the home amenities amazingly in just 250 square feet? You may even have romanticized about trading your palatial digs for the micro version and living more simply. Nice idea, but not many of us would actually do it – we’re too attached to our big, consumptive lives measuring our worth in square feet and wallet size. But what if you could cut down on the consumptive part, stretch your dollar tenfold and live larger than if you won the Powerball jackpot? That’s somewhat the idea behind Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” where, in the near future, dwindling resources reaching “Soylent Green” critical levels has triggered a worldwide movement to conserve and cut back without sacrificing the lush life.

If that sounds like a win-win, it is – except that to do so you must get shrunk down to five inches and live in domed enclaves full of mini mansions, rolling green golf courses and swank nightclubs and eateries. Once done, your $50-a-week food budget can cover you for half a year. It’s a choice, and the world is roughly split down the middle between bigs and littles. Occupational therapist Paul Safrenek (local boy Matt Damon, more in the news these days for his backfiring #MeToo opines) and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig, in the film far too little) decide the only way to achieve the house of their dreams is to go small. The medical process isn’t so easy either, and god forbid you leave dental implants in during the process. The matter for Paul becomes a quest for self-discovery in a new land after his wife (genders separate as they do the process en masse and in the bare) balks in the eleventh hour before shrinkage and hops a jet elsewhere. Continue reading

I, Tonya

24 Dec

 

Quite the year, 1994. O.J. dominated the news. “Pulp Fiction” minted Harvey Weinstein and Quentin Tarantino as Hollywood heavy hitters. Then there was the sad saga of Tonya and Nancy, a relative footnote by comparison but gonzo enough to become tabloid fodder and seize the public’s attention. We all know what happened – or think we do: The darling and the obstreperous outsider going toe loop to toe loop, vying to be America’s figure-skating princess, then a lead pipe to the knee and instant villainy. Trial by press, as we’ve come to know so well these days, can be swift and without appeal. Such seemed to be the case for Tonya Harding after the hit on rival Nancy Kerrigan during their competition in Detroit preceding the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Less interested in right or wrong or justifications than it is about soul and motivation, Craig Gillespie’s sharp, witty “I, Tonya” plays fast and loose as it untangles the messy threads of Harding’s life, from humble origins with a controlling – if not abusive – mother to the fierce competitive could-be and a multitude of poor choices.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers, best known for his work on rom-coms such as “Hope Floats” and “Stepmom” (both in 1998) dug deep into the archival footage and interviewed the interested parties (Harding was involved in helping craft the narrative) to pull together what one might describe as the American Dream gone sideways. Just how close to the truth “I, Tonya” comes might be debatable, but it’s a wondrously compelling human drama armed with the fangs of dark comedy and fueled by outré plot twits that feel lifted right out of “Fargo” – a winning formula if ever there was one.  Continue reading