Bisbee ’17

23 Sep

‘Bisbee ’17’: Company called up the cattle cars, a deadly ‘deportation’ for its striking workers

 

For his riveting documentary “The Act of Killing” (2012), Joshua Oppenheimer tackled the grim matter of a 1960s Indonesian massacre by providing cameras to the heads of the militias and hit squads doing the killing, so each could make a film reenvisioning their involvement. In “Bisbee ’17” Robert Greene captures something similar in a mining town just miles from the Mexican border and down the road from the O.K. Corral. Just as America was entering the First World War and metal production was key – namely copper, the motherlode of Bisbee – a miner strike drew the ire of townsfolk, who armed themselves, rounded up the 1,300 agitators and activists, put them in cattle cars and sent them off to the New Mexico desert, dumping them with steep odds of survival.

That inhumane act has become  known as the Bisbee Deportation. Many of the “deported” workers in 1917 were foreigners, what we today would label as “undocumented.” The town back then was pretty much set up and run by the Phillip Dodge Corp., which brought in the sheriff from Tombstone to spearhead the roundup. The mining camp now is a ghost town; what remains is a strip mall epicenter and 5,000 residents, with a complexion representative of the white industrialist settlers and the native and brown people who toiled under their demands. The town was divided back then on the Brisbee Deportation and remains so, and that’s where Green strikes his vein: For the centennial, the town stages a reenactment, which Green films in perfectly choreographed sequences, interspersing interviews with descendants, including those of a brother who rounded up his own sibling and the first Latino woman to win local election. Yes, Brisbee then and now proves to be something of a microcosm.

Beyond the rote talking heads, the film’s something of a dreamy cinematic wonder, be it the stunning shots of scarred and gutted land framed by Jarred Alterman’s lens, the mood-sparking score by Keegan DeWitt or the pain-streaked folk songs sung by the re-enactors.

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Madeline’s Madeline

23 Sep

‘Madeline’s Madeline’: Brattle selects stunner showing surreal, fraught battle for girl’s mind

 

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Programing matters, and The Brattle Theatre, the plucky “film school” of Harvard Square, has scored some arthouse coups in the past few years. Take “Linda, Linda, Linda” in 2005, “Margaret” in 2011 or even “Upstream Color” and “Snowpiercer” in 2013 – and now “Madeline’s Madeline.” None of those films played an area franchise theater; they were astutely picked out and exhibited by the Brattle programing staff. And they all were hailed by local critics, some even called the best films of their respective years.

In light of the #MeToo moment and in context with the Brattle’s revived “Focus On Cinema Made By, For And About Women” and the Boston Women’s Film Festival kicking off at month’s end, the timing of “Madeline’s Madeline“ couldn’t be more apt. It’s directed by a woman (Josephine Decker, capturing lightning in a bottle) and revolves around three strong female characters. It’s experimental in its treatment of dialogue and hypnotically gauzy imagery, emulating the perspective of an actor in an improv acting collaborative – or perhaps someone who’s suffering from mental illness. It also has a lot to say subtly on race.

The challenge is to stay with it, letting the initial “Persona”-esque disorientation wear away to near “Beasts of the Southern Wild” surreality. There’s also a splash of “Mother!” wildness in there, but it’s fresh and new; my comparisons may be spot on and are irrelevant just the same.

What to know? Madeline (amazing newcomer Helena Howard), a biracial teen, lives with her white mom (quirky actress/writer/director Miranda July, amazingly taking on the straight role here). Dad is nowhere in sight. Both likely have some degree of mental illness, and there’s early signs of abuse (the who, how and why of which are shocking). Given all the unhappiness, Madeline basically lives for her after-school theater troupe, led by a freckled matriarch by the name of Evangeline (Molly Parker, super effective in helping drive the film). Her big idea for the culminating workshop piece is taking pieces of Madeline’s dysfunctional and toxic relationship with her mom and her illness and putting it on stage as a form of therapy, complete with pig masks and a re-created psych ward experience. A battle for control of Madeline’s soul looms between July’s Regina and Evangeline, but Madeline’s far beyond them in the game.

As the film comes more into focus, it be rawer and deeper. Madeline hosts a porn-torture watch party in the basement and later sips wine at Evangeline’s house and has a charged conversation with her husband, and you wonder at each turn where it’s going to go and when the bottom’s going to drop out. It’s an immersion into an addled point of view, and riveting. You can’t look away – every frame adds layer, and there’s so much going on internally that Decker gets out in brilliant visuals, perfectly underscored with moody aural accompaniment.

If you want something new and different yet affecting, well, here it is. Decker will be on tap for the 7 p.m. Saturday screening. The Brattle’s run of “Madeline’s Madeline” has been held over – originally intended to end its run Thursday, it will now show through Sept. 24.

White Boy Rick

23 Sep

‘White Boy Rick’: Life of overachieving teen can’t sustain its high in crack-dealing 1980s

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There’s a whole lot of bristle and edge to “White Boy Rick,” the true-life chronicle of Rick Wershe, a plucky street criminal who made front page news as a drug dealer and gun runner in crack-addicted Detroit. Sure, there were lots of other kingpins working the street during the desperate ’80s, but Rick was barely 16 and – as the film has it – the only white kid trying to cut in. Rick was also an on-and-off again informant for the FBI, a move that ultimately proves less favorable than it did for local white guy Whitey Bulger.

If you were hoping “White Boy Rick” might be a Horatio Alger story propelled with shotgun shells like “Scarface,” it’s not. It’s more a tale of desperation, poor choices and swimming against the current and, on a social level, an American tragedy, and there’s a lot you want to like: the topographical audacity, trademark disco funk music, gritty street lingo and a wickedly impressive cast. But somehow “White Boy Rick” doesn’t know how to deliver, or maybe it’s just that hard to make a true-life criminal be sympathetic or compelling onscreen. Remember how highly anticipated “Black Mass” was, and how it fell short? Rick doesn’t kill anyone here – not directly, anyway, though he does unload a gunny sack of AK-47s to a posse of trigger-happy gangbangers and later distributes heroin and crack. So there’s that.

What “White Boy Rick” needs is a fix of character development and motivation. We have little idea why Rick grabs that satchel of guns from his dad initially and saunters into a kingpin’s operation, inconspicuous as an elephant at a yoga retreat. It’s a perfectly orchestrated and tense scene, but without a framework it wanes quickly thereafter – as does much of the film, as it achieves crescendo after crescendo only to return to flatness. It’s no fault of new face Richie Merritt, who’s convincing enough as the titular man-boy full of resolve and the capacity to pull the trigger, but a high reluctance to shoot first and think later. Strangely or perhaps poetically, Rick flows seamlessly from white to black. If you could imagine Gary Oldman’s dreaded and grilled gangster in “True Romance” shot in the rump with a tranquilizer, you’d have the right approximation: far less cartoonish, but with the right amount of cred. Continue reading

Porter Square Clean Up

9 Sep

Group effort cleans Porter Square Saturday; power washing, window cleaning to come

 

Cigarette butts are the main haul in a Saturday sweep in Porter Square as part of an organized cleanup. (Photo: Tom Meek)

If the T plaza at Porter Square and the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue north and south of it looks a bit trimmer and neater, thank the Porter Square Neighborhood Association, Porter Square Shopping Center owner Gravestar, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, a smattering of area residents and 15 or so students from Harvard who threw in a part of their Day of Service. The “Porter Square and Mass Ave Clean Up!” organized by the association kicked off Saturday with about 30 volunteers broken into teams to weed, sweep and pick up trash along the corridor over four hours. Gravestar and the city donated tools and trash bags, and coffee and doughnuts were provided for those lending sweat and sinew. (For volunteers, the bane of the cigarette butt far outweighed that of the resilient reed.)

The MBTA and Gravestar have promised power washing and window cleaning follow-ups, association organizer Ruth Ryals said.

Peppermint

9 Sep

‘Peppermint’: Jennifer Garner takes her turn in not-so-fresh parental revenge action genre

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There’s nothing minty or fresh to “Peppermint,” the hard-boiled throwback from Pierre Morel who covered similar terrain with “Taken” back in 2008. That psychological actioner starring Liam Neeson as a relentless pa out to reclaim his daughter from kidnappers proved a surprisingly effective B-grade thriller. Here, unfortunately, the amiable Jennifer Garner spreading her wings as an avenging angel has a lot less to work with in terms of nuance and character, though the film far exceeds “Taken” in brutality and head count. Comparisons to “Old Boy” or “John Wick” would be fair.

The film begins accordingly with a bloody struggle inside a boxy sedan in predawn Los Angeles. In those tight confines, Garner’s Riley North eventually gains the upper hand and lets a bullet fly into the cranium of a highly tatted gangbanger. The thing you admire most about the whole affair and its aftermath is Riley’s steely resolve and professional efficiency. You know she’s done this before. The how and why of that get answered quickly as we flash back five years, with Riley now a Girl Scout-leading soccer mom. Things are pretty tight for the Norths: Riley works part time in a bank while her loving yet flawed husband Chris (Jeffery Hephner) labors in a garage while figuring out his next big move. Unwisely, he listens (just listens) to an offer to be part of a crew to rob a drug lord by the fantastically generic name of Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), who, as the film says over and over, is the Mr. Big of the L.A. crime scene. The offer gets turned down, but Garcia’s already caught wind of the job and takes out Chris and Riley’s 9-year-old daughter (Cailey Fleming) in a drive-by. Riley sees the whole ordeal – in repeat slow-mo – and even though she IDs the shooters to the police, once in court, the defense attorney smugly flips the case. The judge won’t listen to Riley’s plea and the prosecutors don’t seem to care. The shooter goes free. An enraged Riley is cuffed, dragged out of court and prepped for a mental institution. Continue reading

Crazy Rich Asians

19 Aug

 

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There’s been much ado about “Crazy Rich Asians” being the first all-Asian film to hit English screens since the screen adaptation of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” back in 1993. While that sentiment holds largely true, it’s not wholly accurate; those behind the labeling likely forgot about “Better Luck Tomorrow,” the 2002 curio from director Justin Lin (of the “Fast and Furious” and “Star Trek” franchises) about overachieving high schoolers. (Granted, it was made for only $250,000, so maybe it doesn’t qualify, but it did earn more than 1,400 percent that at the box office, which is crazy by any standard.) And “Crazy Rich Asians,” like “Tomorrow,” orbits around the tip of the social spire – the very tip of the top in this case, as it concerns the one-percent of all one-percenters.

If that sounds like a tough sell – trying to invoke empathy for the wildly entitled – that would be fair (the don’t-haves here have doctorates) but keep in mind, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a comedy, and one that revels smartly in the excess of its subjects without being trite, superficial or dismissive. Also, the problems the folks face along the way are universal people problems, not rich-people problems, though class does play a major factor. You could think of its as something akin to “Sex and the City” by way of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” with a fuller body, greater nuance and a twist of zest. What makes the whole thing fly is Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, a New York City econ prof who’s dating Nick, the hunky history prof (Henry Golding) from down the hall. She’s the one out of her class element when Nick invites her to attend a wedding in his homeport of Singapore. What she doesn’t know until she boards the luxury airliner and they’re led to a suite with beds and room service is that Nick is slumming it in academia: His family basically owns half of Singapore and his mother (a very regal Michelle Yeoh) is no fan of the poor-bred interloper. (Rachael was raised by a single mother – and worse, she’s American.) 

That’s the primary rub, and several of Nick’s old girlfriend’s are sent in to perform mean-girl stunts that at times feel more like a mafia hit. In short, the odds are stacked against Rachel, but Nick, ever calm, suave, loving and by her side, holds the boat steady – he’s Prince Charming and then some. Also in Rachel’s corner is rapper Awkwafina as Rachel’s bestie from college and Ken Jeong, her friend’s dad. They both try too hard, but provide the necessary comic relief. The one who really walks away with the scenes is Nico Santos as Nick’s cousin Oliver, imbued with barbed wit and a wicked sense of “Queer Eye” makeover panache. 

Wu, best known for her tiger-esque mom on the wonderful “Fresh Off the Boat” TV series, slides into the rom-com format with the same ease as Jennifer Aniston; as with Aniston, there’s something that doesn’t quite fit, but also something that endears. Yeoh commands every frame she’s in, but the big winner here is Golding, who has the demurring charm of Hugh Grant, with square-jawed good looks and kindness and intelligence in every glimmer. He’ll be a household name and bankable star before the next presidential election. 

The other stars of “Crazy Rich Asians” are the city of Singapore itself – plush, clean and eternally inviting as framed by director Jon M. Chu and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul – and the food porn rendering of the banquet spreads and dumplings. It’s not on par with “Babette’s Feast” or “Eat Drink Man Woman,” but it will make you lick your chops. Also a nice touch: The American pop tunes sung in Mandarin, including Madonna’s apt “Material Girl.” It’s just another neatly placed garnish that takes the old and known and gives it zing. It’s a thing.

BlacKKKlansman

13 Aug

‘BlacKkKlansman’: True story of infiltration that hardly has to sneak in a modern message

 

If someone told you there’d be a movie about a black man who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, you’d probably call BS. I mean, how could that ever be? But what if the infiltrator were Jewish? You’d likely double down on your BS card – after all, these are the two bloodlines that drive the rallying hate of the white knights whose mission has been to keep America pure and white. Continue reading