The B-Side

14 Jul

‘The B-Side’ Brings Pioneer Cambridge Photographer Elsa Dorfman Out From Behind The Camera

A portrait of Elsa Dorfman from July 2007. (Courtesy Neon) 

The latest documentary from revered local filmmaker Errol Morris is essentially a love letter to his longtime friend and fellow Cantabrigian, Elsa Dorfman.

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” profiles the life of the woman who spent more than 30 years profiling others in her studio. She was a pioneer of photography, best known for her 20×24 inch Polaroid portraits. Given that Morris’ lens has been trained on such diverse and idiosyncratic subjects as pet cemeteriesrenown cosmologist Stephen Hawking and an off-kilter Holocaust denier, “The B-Side” may seem something of a whimsy by comparison, but it’s Morris’ most intimate and warmest output to date.

Elsa Dorfman. (Courtesy Neon)
Elsa Dorfman. (Courtesy Neon)

Morris first met Dorfman when she photographed his son — then 5, now 30 years old — and has had the urge to make this film for some time.

“I’ve known Elsa a long, long time,” Morris says in a conversation with Dorfman on her back patio just outside Harvard Square. “I had the idea for this movie for a while, and when I told Elsa she was skeptical.” Continue reading

War for the Planet of the Apes

14 Jul

Since the CGI resurrection of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise (can we all agree to forget the ill-conceived 2001 Mark Wahlberg-Tim Burton version?), the films – “Rise” (2011) and “Dawn” (2014) – have been working their way slowly up to the events that frame the classic 1968 film penned by “Twilight Zone” host Rod Serling and starring Charleston Heston. With “War for the Planet of the Apes” we get more breadcrumbs leading from here to there.

The plot picks up two years after “Dawn” ended with Caesar (Andy Serkis, the action-capture actor who so viscerally brought Gollum to life in “The Lord of the Rings” films) and fellow simians holed up in the woods trying to find a peaceful foothold as man employs military might to hunt down and eradicate them. We learn too that the simian flu that has decimated humankind makes apes smarter while it mutes humans and dims their mental capacity. (There’s your first breadcrumb).

The script by director Matt Reeves (“Let Me In” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) and Mark Bomback, who worked with Reeves on “Dawn,” adds some smart wrinkles with the apes trying to disengage from war, setting off to find an ape Eden out of human reach, while Caesar, having incurred deep personal loss, ventures off on a revenge mission. To stir the pot we get Woody Harrelson as a Col. Kurtz type – fittingly titled “The Colonel” – hellbent on preserving humankind via extreme methodologies and, as a result, coming into conflict with other military heads. Like Kurtz he’s gone off the reservation and has a legion of special force-trained believers to back his madness. He also has a few apes that have become turncoats, labeled “donkeys” and regarded slightly above slaves; only prisoner apes have it worse. Continue reading

Baby Driver

3 Jul

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular wheelman in Edgar Wright's kinetic caper film

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular wheelman in Edgar Wright’s kinetic caper film

 

Edgar Wright, the man behind the edgy romps Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), comical deconstructions of the zombie and cop buddy genres, as well as the quirky, if not gonzo, adaptation of the graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim — as Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) — moves into far darker territory with his latest, Baby Driver. The project may have taken root as a result of Wright’s affiliation with Quentin Tarantino on the 2007 B-flick homage, Grindhouse, but the texture isn’t so much Tarantino pulpy as it is the kind of criminal abyss you might find in a Nicolas Winding Refn film if served up with the kitschy kinetic flourishes of an unbridled Luc Besson.

The film, in short, is an adrenaline shot that never lets down. You won’t get a chance to go to the bathroom, but also, because of the breakneck pace, the audience never gets a chance to get caught up emotionally. Wright gets right to it as a squad of robbers (played by Jon Bernthal, John Hamm, and Eliza González) and their driver, the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) hold up a bank. We don’t go into the bank for the job but hang out in the car with the aptly named wheelman (née, boy), who has the fresh face of a J. Crew model and doesn’t appear old enough to drink, as he listens to tunes on his iPod and plays air guitar. It’s a cute moment for a while, but after a bit, it becomes clear it lacks the energetic meanness of Tom Cruise in his skivvies in Risky Business. Blessedly, the robbers pour out of the bank with the heat hot on their tail, and this is where Wright and the film really kick it up. Baby’s got Mario Andretti skills and Steve McQueen cool and to prove the point, we get an endless phalanx of blue and whites to chase Baby’s hot-red Subaru through the streets of Atlanta. Cars crash, traffic backs up, and there’s nothing Baby won’t try as the net tightens. Wrong way down the freeway, no problem.  Continue reading

The Beguiled

20 Jun

Nicole Kidman turns in a commanding performance as the matron of a Southern estate undone by the arrival of a wounded soldier

Focus Features

Nicole Kidman turns in a commanding performance as the matron of a Southern estate undone by the arrival of a wounded soldier.

 

Given Sofia Coppola’s penchant for strong female characters and repressed sexuality, be it the pairing of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2003) or the alluringly perverse texture of The Virgin Suicides (1999), it somewhat makes sense that she set her sights on remaking Civil War Gothic The Beguiled, which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. That 1971 film, based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel The Painted Devil was directed by Don Siegel — who would later that year pair with Eastwood for the maverick cop avenger fantasy Dirty Harry — who mined Eastwood for all his macho virility as a Yank soldier, wounded behind enemy lines and brought to an all-woman seminary to recuperate. Given the prim nature of the house, the sheer presence of male pheromones wreaks havoc on the females’ sensibilities as Eastwood’s Corporal John McBurney proves to be a feral manipulator, having his way with several of the women and even pitting them against one another. Coppola’s version throws a dash of saltpeter on the role here undertaken by Colin Farrell who turns the good corporal into a more humane, less lurid incarnation.

You’d think a softer touch might educe a deeper plumbing of the complex emotions that get brought to the surface by war, strictly imposed Christian values, and a member of the enemy — and the opposite sex — lying in the very next room, but that doesn’t necessarily prove to be the case. Coppola chases authenticity in small, subtle strokes. Siegel took a far different approach, creating something of a psychological thriller, inserting gauzy fantasy sequences and quick intercuts of the lean Eastwood in bed with one of the lasses as horror etches across the faces of the estate’s matrons attuned to the meaning of the giggles and bumps echoing from the far reaches of the house. The film, a box office disappointment that was to prove Eastwood’s range beyond revenge westerns, bordered on near spectacle, but it possessed an edgy energy that never flagged.  Continue reading

Watch Dogging the Historic Charm of Harvard Square

12 Jun

Harvard Square isn’t losing Defense Fund, it’s just gaining Neighborhood Association

Longtime thorn in side of developers morphs with new generation

Gladys “Pebble” Gifford, Caroline James, Marilee Meyer and Abra Berkowitz amid work on Harvard Square issues. (Photo: Carole Perrault)

The Harvard Square Defense Fund is back – rebranded.

The citizens group had some powerhouse years after its founding in 1979 by Gladys “Pebble” Gifford – blocking fast food franchises, sending the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum off to Boston and reshaping Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts – but has been dormant for years, even as people griped that the quaint square was losing its charm amid an infestation of banks and chain retailers. Believing the fund dissolved as far back as 2008, when Gifford gave testimony against the coming of The Sinclair nightclub in 2011, she did so as just a neighbor.

“The directors all got elderly or died. We thought we’d officially put it to bed,” Gifford said of her organization.

But when the city announced a $4.6 million plan to revamp the square’s 89-year-old Out of Town News kiosk and surrounding plaza, activists worried the alterations would nullify its classic charm and iconic features.

Members of the group Our Harvard Square, which includes Suzanne Blier, a Harvard architectural historian, and Susan Labandibar, president of Tech Networks of Boston, began calling for the structure – already on the list of the National Register of Historic Places – to be designated as a landmark by the Cambridge Historic Commission in hopes it would further ensure its preservation.  Continue reading

Wonder Woman

3 Jun

The beleaguered “Justice League” franchise, barely off the ground with the turgid “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” beatdown last summer, gets a much-needed shot in the arm from the feminine side side of the tracks. Fans can breathe a sigh of relief with the release of “Wonder Woman,” which proves far sharper and more fun than any of its DC predecessors. The big question will be whether a woman win over the fanboys who – if we use box office as an indicator – like their super beginnings beefy, cut and baritone.

A peek into the Magic 8 Ball says yes.

The film may be long for what it is (nearly two and a half hours) but it’s also lithe and imbued with deft nuggets of humor, and it keeps moving. The opening scene, in which we meet Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in the present, proves to be a Justice League tie-in. It’s an odd, disjointed bit, but we don’t linger before getting whisked back to a young Diana on the island of Themyscira, which for all intents and purposes is the DC reimagining of the Isle of Lesbos as it’s occupied solely by female Amazon warriors led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nelson) and General Antiope (Robin Wright). Besides being beguiled by Nelson and Wright, who speak with a weird accent and have fine, sculpted physiques that folks half their age would be lucky to have, we get mumbo jumbo about the rivalry between Zeus and Ares and the circumstances that produced Diana – the only child born on an island void of men. (A page from Amazon literature informs us they’re good for reproduction, but not pleasure.) Continue reading

Alien: Covenant

19 May

Almost 40 Years Since ‘Alien’ Brought Sci-Fi To Pop Culture, ‘Covenant’ Goes Back To Basics

"Alien: Covenant." (Courtesy Mark Rogers/Twentieth Century Fox)

It’s hard to believe it has been nearly 40 years since that little wiggle of a vorpal worm ripped its way out of John Hurt’s abdomen in “Alien,” the sci-fi movie experience that took the fun and fantasy of “Star Wars” and flipped it on its head.

That film’s helmer Ridley Scott, a genius by some accounts, a hack by others and now almost 80 years of age, has shown great commitment to the franchise returning again for “Alien: Covenant.” The film is the sequel to “Prometheus” (2012), which is the first chapter of a prequel series to Scott’s 1979 space chiller that kept audiences up at night, fearful of mutant xenomorph with cascading sets of jaws.

“Alien: Covenant” takes place 10 years after “Prometheus” and approximately two decades before Ripley and her salvage crew discover that wrecked ship loaded with leathery undulating egg casings that we now know better than to peer down into. Bolstered by an impressively eclectic cast, “Prometheus” was a quirky reboot and something of a meta contemplation on creationism and origins that didn’t resonate with a wide fan base — not enough aliens and too many hidden agendas.

The good news with “Alien: Covenant,” especially for loyalists, is that Scott goes back to the basics. But because he has to build off the groundwork laid by his 2012 effort, there’s also plenty of ideologue about man, his creations superseding him and his viability in the universe over time. Scott and his screenwriters — John Logan and Dante Harper — do a nice job getting the plot points to line up seamlessly, though pacing and character development are sacrificed as a result.  Continue reading