Archive | April, 2017

Free Fire

26 Apr

With ‘Free Fire,’ Ben Wheatley Puts His Bloody Stamp On Boston Crime Comedy

Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley in "Free Fire." (Courtesy A24)closemore

“Free Fire,” the plucky black comedy about an arms deal gone awry, just might be the most gonzo crime movie to be set in Boston — and it wasn’t even shot here.

Ben Wheatley, the hip noirish auteur who turned heads with “Kill List” and, more recently, the near-apocalyptic anthropology experiment “High Rise,” shot this battle royal in a dilapidated warehouse in England. Much of the cast too is European and thankfully, only one is tasked with attempting our infamous accent.

Early on, we get a slick nighttime glimmer across the harbor at a silhouette that looks vaguely like our stately Custom House Tower. Beyond that, nothing in the film feels remotely Boston. And to compound the foreign-familiar feeling, it’s set in the late-1970s when 8-track was king, and John Denver rules the soundtrack. Why the British director and his co-writer and wife, Amy Jump, decided to set such a caper in Boston probably had something to do with the allure of our rich criminal lore that has become boundless in its cinematic incarnations.

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in "Free Fire." (Courtesy Kerry Brown/A24)
Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in “Free Fire.” (Courtesy Kerry Brown/A24)

The orientation doesn’t matter so much as we’re quickly inside an abandoned factory warehouse where practically all of the action takes place (the film’s only 85 minutes long and I’d say that 84 of them are in, or just outside the waterfront warehouse that you can imagine being in the now bustling Seaport back when it was a desolate industrial wasteland). What Wheatley and Jump serve up is a thick den of thieves with hidden agendas and a double dealer, a plot structure Quentin Tarantino made retro-hip with “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992 and his 2015 western redux, “The Hateful Eight.” Wheatley, a stylist of hyper violence in his own right, takes the barebones and puts his bloody stamp on it. Continue reading

The Lost City of Z

26 Apr

James Gray, who started out directing gritty New York-rooted crime dramas (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards” and “We Own the Night”) before branching out into matters of the heart (“Two Lovers”) and a “Godfather”-esque epic of sorts (“The Immigrant”), heads up river and into uncharted water with “The Lost City of Z,” a rewind of real-life adventurer Percy Fawcett’s trips to the Amazon in the early 1900s, when he claimed to have found the seeds of an advanced culture that may have predated western civilization.

As Gray’s account (based on David Grann’s factually disputed novel) has it, Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam from “Sons of Anarchy”), a British military officer with a calm demeanor but a chip on his shoulder because he felt passed over for assignments, reluctantly accepts a fluff mission from the Royal Geographical Society to map Amazonia as part of a larger effort to protect Britain’s rubber tree interests. His first mission, fraught with cannibals, piranhas and tropical ailments such as a face-eating flesh disease and gangrene, set off in 1906. Years later, upon return to Britannia, Fawcett is greeted by jeers of blasphemy for claiming traces of intelligent civilization in a jungle full of “savages.”

The trip obviously set something off in Fawcett, who becomes inexhaustibly determined to find “Z” – which many believe to be a fragment of the similarly elusive ancient kingdom, El Dorado. All in all, according to Grann, Fawcett would make eight trips to the Amazon, the last being in 1925 when he and his son (played by Tom Holland, who has newly taken over the webs of Spider-Man in the Marvel movie franchises) would disappear. Gray wisely pares down the octet of sojourns to three and in between stages some impressive World War I trench warfare, reenacting Fawcett’s short tenure as an artillery commander in Flanders. Waiting at home through all these ordeals is Fawcett’s loyal wife Nina (the lovely Sienna Miller), who tends to an ever-growing family without much protest. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more supportive life partner on screen.

The strength of “Z” lies in the bond Fawcett forges with his loyal aide, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) as they head repeatedly into the unknown with the promise of discovery and self revelation ever ripe. Such was the driving force behind “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979), but here, that current gets lost in the muddy roils of posture and pretense. The film, full of intent and admirable in so many ways, never delves into the darkness of Fawcett’s soul; equally as unsatisfactory, it fails to conjecture about his fate.  Cray and Crann have painted a handsome, humane portrait of Fawcett,  who by other accounts something of a controversial figure, accused of being a showman to garner funding and attention with claims of spotting strange beasts never before sighted and accomplishing improbable feats – including alleging that he shot a 62-foot anaconda. In the end “Z” becomes an entertaining travelogue of minor character in history that unfortunately turns back just as the water gets choppy.

Bye Bye Pooh House

12 Apr

Winnie-the-Pooh tree marked for removal after 20 years delighting visitors to Hurlbut

Residents: Lucky to have had something that makes goodbyes hard

The Winnie-the-Pooh tree on Hurlbut Street drew visitors from all over – including kids on geocaching missions out of Canada. (Photo: Geo Kidz)
The tree was a full silver maple until an April 1, 1997, snowstorm. (Photo: Tom Meek)
Inside are notes, a guestbook and a lending library box. (Photo: Ketzirah Lesser & Art Drauglis)

The “Pooh House,” a beloved jewel of Neighborhood 9, will be torn down in the coming weeks as part of a lead pipe replacement and repaving scheduled by the Department of Public Works, officials have told Hurlbut Street residents.

Twenty years ago, a grand silver maple that lorded over the street became a victim of a April Fool’s Day snowstorm that dumped nearly two feet of heavy, wet snow on the city. The remaining stump, initially hollowed out by Harvard anthropologist and neighbor Irv Devore, was crafted into the Pooh House by wood sculpture artist Mitch Ryerson, whose imaginative, interactive sculptures dot playgrounds across the city.

Funded in part by the Cambridge Arts Council, the belly of the tree became a living room occupied by a plump Pooh Bear with a guest book hanging inside to be signed by visitors – mostly children inspired by the chance to see a physical incarnation of A.A. Milne’s cherished creation. The eight- to nine-foot structure was capped by a meticulously laid shingled roof and a weathervane with a faded sign below for “Mr. Sanders” near a small door and window leading to the root system, a reference to Milne’s previous Pooh house tenant.

Soon the whimsical structure will be uprooted and removed.

“Sad to see it go, but 20 years is a pretty good run for an old stump,” Ryerson said.

Hurlbut Street resident Bill King recalled Devore’s caring curation of the Pooh House, which also became a take-and-return honor library of sorts, and reported that the guest book was once used to facilitate a marriage proposal (and, the next day, an acceptance).

Longtime Avon Hill resident Ruth Ryals talked about the draw of the house when her now-mature grandchildren from Pittsburgh came to visit. “It was a special place for them that helped make Cambridge special,” Ryals said. Many other area residents shared equally fond remembrances.

At the roots is a doorway with a faded sign for “Mr. Sanders.” (Photo: Ketzirah Lesser & Art Drauglis)

A less substantial Pooh House was been a fixture outside Harvard’s Science Center at 1 Oxford St. since 1990.

Ghost in the Shell

1 Apr

Put a pretty girl in some Lycra and, poof, you got a movie, right? Well, yes and no. It worked with Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich in the “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” series respectively, but not so much for Charlize Theron in “Aeon Flux” or Halle Berry in “Catwoman.” You can add Scarlett Johansson to that “not” list with this live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga “Ghost in the Shell,” done more righteously in the 1995 animation feature directed by Mamoru Oshii. Sure, Scar-Jo looks fetching, much as she does as the Black Widow in the “Avengers” series, and the film, helmed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) with lush cinematography by Jess Hall, might even be more optically alluring. The “Blade Runner”-esque reimagining of a near-future Shanghai is a wonderment in its own right and perhaps worth the price of entry, but not enough to atone for an inert script and robotic acting.

Things begin promisingly enough when Scar-Jo’s Major rises elegantly out of a synthetic pool, the first cybernetic organism manufactured by the Hanka Robotics corporation. Major’s a leap forward in human and technology fusion (the flesh and steel body being the “shell,” with her computer-infused brain the “ghost”), yanked from her scientific incubators (a matronly Juliette Binoche among them) and appropriated as a weapon to fight cyberterrorists. The target du jour is an elusive entity known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), who’s out to hack Hanka and the government to pieces. Major’s barely out of the lab when we get a glimmer of her prowess, leaping from a tall building and taking out a room full of assassins with barely a hair out of place. It’s a fiery, kinetic jolt that perhaps comes too early for its own good. The shell in which the film operates becomes quickly inconsistent in tenor and tone, bouncing from somber, semi-serious oppressive future vision (back to “Blade Runner”) to hyperbolic free-for-all and, in the process, uproots the prospect of suspension of disbelief.

Sadly too, Scar-Jo, so fantastic in “Under the Skin” (2013) and normally quite capable, comes off Ben Affleck-wooden here and is further undermined by the film’s lack of an emotional core. The device of Major struggling to tap into her “ghost” to discover her true identity, much akin to Peter Weller’s cyborg in “RoboCop” (1987), piques interest at turns, but ultimately feels tacked on and beholden to the larger sheen. The corporate and governmental double dealings, which strangely seem apt as metaphor for the Trump presidency and its shadowy ties to Russia, also could have been played for greater satire and bite but also become lazy and lackluster plot points. By the end of the film, everything’s empty and contrived. Then the “spider tank” shows up and hyperbole takes off her gown to reveal a not-so-appealing figure.