Archive | May, 2018

First Reformed

26 May

‘First Reformed’: The reverend is in torment in a ‘Taxi Driver’ for a newly tormented era

 

In two of Martin Scorsese’s career-defining films – “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) – the protagonists (cab driver Travis Bickle and Jesus) are souls in torment and on the cusp of greater things that, to varying degrees, shift the civilized world as we know it. Both were written by Paul Schrader, a Calvinist-raised midwesterner who’s regularly shown himself a master as writer (“Raging Bull”) but something of a tormented soul himself as a director. With early hits such as “Blue Collar” (1978), “American Gigolo” (1980) and “Cat People” (1982) and intermittent wonders thereafter – “Affliction” (1997) and “Auto Focus” (2002) – Schrader has more recently scored a series of miscues – “The Canyons” (2013) and “Dog Eat Dog” (2016) – that have tanked critically and gone to the secondary market without the dignity of a theatrical release.

The good news is that Schrader’s latest, “First Reformed,” is something of a resurrection for the 71-year-old filmmaker, and an apt one; it revolves around a soul arguably more anguished than Christ or Bickle. The object of the title is a small, upstate New York church on the eve of its 250th anniversary. Tending to its diminishing flock is a reverend by the name of Ernst Toller (played with perfect restraint by Ethan Hawke, delivering his best work since “Training Day”) who’s clearly more lost spiritually than any of his flock. We learn early on that in the near recent past he’s lost his son to the war, and his wife abandoned him in the aftermath. Toller remains composed at the dais, but behind rectory doors he’s washed out, rueful and barely able to find solace at the bottom of a glass of bourbon. Smartly, he keeps the bottle hidden, but higher-ups at the parent parish (played with power and concern by Cedric the Entertainer) ultimately suss him out. How Toller finds redemption comes initially through purpose, when pregnant young parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her troubled husband, who spouts eco-terrorism mantras and conspiracy theories – nothing like a drowning man trying to save another going under – and later, in the discovery of a suicide vest. Continue reading

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

26 May

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’: Lively origin tale, but young Lando beats the Han we’re dealt

 

“Solo,” the new “Star Wars Story,” is a fun galactic go, breezy and lithe with just the right amount of darkness. That said, it doesn’t do much to deepen the whole Star Wars mythos the way “Rogue One” so ingeniously did back in 2016. That first “story” implied a series of one-off backstories that would embrace and extenuate the goings-on in the three “Star Wars” trilogies (we’ve gotten eight to date, with one more to go). “Solo” does the former, giving us an intimate look at the young Han Solo pining away for a woman who isn’t Leia, but two and a half hours later, I was wondering: To what end? After all, the mature Han, as played so iconically by Harrison Ford, perished in “Episode VII: the Force Awakens” (of course, we know a return is not out of the realm of possibility) and the big reveals that made “Rogue One” such an inviting companion piece are scant here by comparison. “Solo” does answer the long lingering questions of how Han got his name, how he and Chewbacca met and how they got their mitts on their Millennium Falcon. But it also raises a few.

At one point in the movie, someone says, “It’s not about you.” It’s an astute observation, as the film is at its thriving best when the screen is filled by the potpourri of personality that orbits the pivotal pilot of the title. The problem with Han (played by Alden Ehrenreich) as a character here is that he’s just not all that interesting of a dude, or in the least close to what was hinted at by Ford’s wisecracking incarnation. Also too, and I hate to say it, Ehrenreich is no Ford – not even a shadow. He tries, but you spend more time searching for vestiges and mannerisms of the Han you know than you are transported to the then and there. Continue reading

Aftermath

21 May

The Long Island Literary Journal May 2018

“We did this to ourselves,” Jonesy said sliding bullets into a tarnished old .38.  Besides an aluminum baseball bat and a barn full of rusted farm implements, it was their primary means of defense, one they had yet to use, but the expectation was that things were to only get worse. It had been eighteen months since the ban went into effect, fourteen since the MOAB was dropped on a so tagged hot-spot in the Middle-east and five weeks since the dirty bombs went off in Boston and New York.

Stan watched Jonesy cautiously in the rearview as he guided the dinged-up Dodge Charger along the roadway marred by frost heaves and years of neglect. He knew little about his passenger other than he was elusive when it came to questions but seemed to know much about the western hills of Massachusetts and Connecticut and how to get the most from the woods. Just five days earlier he had drifted out from the tree line under the weight of a large backpack. Stan was prompt in his effort to dismiss the intruder, and felt he had matters in hand until Echo appeared on the back porch with a bottle of pop in hand.

 “Maybe he can help with the generator?” she interjected casually, “We might need that hunk of junk after all.”

Stan wished to protest but knew his wife was probably right just like his mother was when she had the massive crate delivered to the farmhouse in the tense months following 9/11. “If anything like that ever happens again,” the matriarch chortled while drinking a saucer full of cheap scotch when she could easily afford better, “you kids just jump in the car and head to Weathervane Farm. I’ll have everything there for you.” Stan found the notion of buying a farm in Western Massachusetts when his parents lived in Connecticut a complete waste of money, though Church View did turn out to be a good central place for Worthington holiday gatherings. His sister lived in Chicago and made the dutiful trek east twice a year with her ever growing brood.  It was perfect while it lasted and now, his mother’s paranoid ramblings about the future of mankind boomeranged back from the beyond as shards of prophetic wisdom. Stan’s only regret being that he wished he had set up the generator back then when she had wished it.

The car hit a pothole and a bullet slipped from Jonesy’s hand. “Steady mate,” he said cooly as he retrieved the projectile, “Be a shame if Bulla put a hole in your seat.”

That coy air of amiable aloofness bothered Stan. He knew he was alone in that regard.  The others taking refuge in the place his mother had so affectionately rebranded ‘Manure Manor,’  didn’t share his scrutiny. Little Jade was delighted by the coins pulled from her ears at dinner that first night, and afterwards Jonesy toiled under Echo’s direction in the kitchen, sharing wine and laughs late into the evening. Even crabby old Rosemary appeared susceptible to his charms granting Jonesy great deference before launching in with her bristly opines and demeaning insistences. Each morning, Stan expected the man hidden behind aviator sunglasses and a fine beard, to disappear back into the woods, but at night, when dinner was served, he was there at the table as if he has always been.  The tenor of the manor had shifted. There was less control, more spontaneity and things got done. Jonesy was fit and able, a rising commodity as networks fell and the availability of shrink wrapped sustenance waned.

“How much we got?” Stan asked. Continue reading

19 May

‘Deadpool 2’: Everything is bigger this time, matching his mouth, but not quite as fresh

 

“Deadpool” is back, and with all the irreverence of the last silly slap. But where the original was so uproariously self-deprecating, scintillatingly scatological and fresher than a boatload of day scallops, the part deux follow-up feels more like daily gruel. That’s something of a deeper disappointment because it’s helmed by stunt-dude turned action director David Leitch, who scored big with “John Wick” (2014) and “Atomic Blonde” (2017), but here seems content to simply extenuate what came before. The same happened with fellow Marvel upstart “Guardians of the Galaxy” (it’s from the Marvel Comics Universe under Disney, versus 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment doing “Deadpool” and “X-Men”) and its sequel, a clear issue with the genre – brand something in a new and ingenious way, get the fans fired up and then keep feeding them what they know and desire until they gag on it. Then it’s back to the drawing board for a reboot or the next super franchise idea. Continue reading

Beast

19 May

‘Beast’: Suspicions run wild after murder, and something about Moll draws the mob

 

A curious yet apt title for this taut psycho-drama that plays effectively with the viewer’s sense of perception. Eerie, foreboding and profoundly disorienting, “Beast,” like many of its beguiling characters, becomes something of a shapeshifter; it revolves around the struggles of a troubled young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley), blessed with fiery red locks constantly tousled across her porcelain face by the relentless wind that whips the quaint U.K. isle of Jersey she’s relegated to – and seemingly unable to leave. The setting, so alluring and ominous, becomes an integral player in developments. Jersey’s the kind of remote, off-the-grid British burg that Sam Peckinpah might have shot “Straw Dogs” in had his location scouts stumbled upon it.

Moll lives with her controlling mother (an icy-cold Geraldine James), who stalks her progeny and questions her every whereabouts despite the fact Moll’s a mature woman with a full-time job (as a tour bus guide). Given mum’s iron glove, moving out would be a good idea, but there’s that troubled/damaged thing. Can Moll truly be on her own, or does she need constant monitoring? We get the answer to that quickly as Moll goes clubbing one night into the wee hours with a scruffy drifter/handyman by the name of Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Elsewhere, news blips on the TV tell us there’s been a recent murder of a girl nearby, and another girl is missing. The short list of suspects the film and police pursue includes Moll – she had a violent incident back in high school that haunts her – and Pascal. Moll may be somewhat lost and misunderstood, but there’s always deep down inside an ember of hopeful ebullience, and she becomes spirited at the prospect that she and Pascal might hie away together for happier destinations. Darker matters beyond legal suspicion cloud the notion, such as nightmarish incursions that come in the middle of the night or Moll’s ill-conceived insistence on showing up at one of the victim’s funerals. Ultimately “Beast” becomes a tug of war between hope and despair, with an ever-shifting emotional landscape.

First-time filmmaker Michael Pearce weaves in themes of isolation, alienation and defiance that clearly mine the essence of Roman Polanski’s 1965 psycho-thriller “Repulsion” (1965) and, to a lesser wow factor, Julia Roberts’ 1991 hit, “Sleeping with the Enemy.” It’s a subtle borrowing, as Pearce without doubt forges his own, unique authorship. Like Polanski, his true ace in the hole is his lead. Not enough can be said of Buckley’s ability to bounce palpably from a wallflower-esque ingenue to romantically ripe hopeful and later, something more disturbed and even menacing. It’s an incredible load to bear, but Buckley does it without any letdown. By the middle of the film Moll’s psychological state and Pearce’s moody ambiance become symbiotic extensions of one other, heightening the already fraught state with arthouse poetics.

As far as the title goes, there’s plenty of monsters to be had in “Beast.” The killer, for one, but also – and perhaps more to the point – the insular judgmental folk of the remote isle so willing to condemn a fellow human based on mob rage or a simple whisper from the TV.

Nolan and Escher at the MFA

17 May

 

What Artist M.C. Escher And Filmmaker Christopher Nolan Have In Common

To complement the perception-warping lithographs of M.C. Escher currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, curator Carter Long and the smart folks over in the MFA’s film department have put together “Math, Mind and Memory,” a retrospective of Christopher Nolan’s films. The program launches on Wednesday, May 16 with Nolan’s debut, “Following” (1998), and concludes on May 31 with the British auteur’s 2014 planet-hopping odyssey, “Interstellar.”

If the crossover connection between surrealist graphic designer and alternate reality-conjuring filmmaker doesn’t immediately make sense, consider Escher’s continuous stairway to nowhere, “Ascending and Descending.” Its endless bend of perception and geometric form could easily be mistaken for a storyboard cell pulled from Nolan’s dream-thief thriller, “Inception” (2010), in which streetscapes and buildings get folded in on themselves, even inverted, creating an endless maze of concrete and tarmac that beguiles as it overwhelms. (The film plays on May 24 and 25.)

On the left, M.C. Escher's "Ascending and Descending." On the right, a still from Christopher Nolan's "Inception." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR and MFA)
On the left, M.C. Escher’s “Ascending and Descending.” On the right, a still from Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” (Robin Lubbock/WBUR and MFA)

More thematically, the Dutch artist’s famous “Drawing Hands,” where one hand sketches the next into existence while that hand conversely draws its creator, plays with the sense of time and origin. It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum visualized in evocative 2D (though the deeply layered shadowing lends a rich 3D effect). Something similar is explored in Nolan’s “Interstellar.” The humanity-saving space mission sails off into the fourth dimension of time and space density, creating a scenario in which children out age their parents. (“Interstellar” screens May 20 and 31.)

The retrospective, which includes the latter two of Nolan’s popular Batman films, “The Dark Knight” (on May 26) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (also on May 26), rightly recognizes the director’s box-office brilliance. Who else makes thinking-man thrillers that regularly gross more than $500 million? But the MFA series also more aptly shines a light on Nolan’s early efforts and influences.

“Following,” shot in noirish black and white and on 16mm guerrilla style, unravels agendas within agendas as a wannabe writer (Jeremy Theobald), who follows random people for muse material, gets tangled up with a dapper petty criminal (Alex Haw) and an aloof woman with a Marilyn Monroe-perfect coif (Lucy Russell). The ever-twisting plot complicated by love triangle implications cast wafts of Danny Boyle’s gritty early work, “Shallow Grave” (1994), and is a clear blueprint for Nolan’s sophomore effort, “Memento” (2000). Continue reading

Porter Square Redesign

11 May

Protected bike lanes aren’t in final proposal for traffic changes coming to Porter Square

 

A human wall formed at an April 26 bicyclist protest in Porter Square to dramatize the need for protected bike lanes to city transportation officials. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Final plans for traffic safety improvements in Porter Square were presented Tuesday, updated from a form presented Jan. 18 but not erasing fully the strong opposition by residents and cycling activist groups.

The presentation had the square’s current five-phase traffic signal cycle (including one for pedestrians only, and another to leave the mall parking lot) still being replaced by a simpler three-phase cycle.

A left exit from the Porter Square shopping plaza through a zebra-striped pedestrian pavilion will remain; the January plan showed it being eliminated, with the exit blocked by cement planters – a proposal called cheap and ugly by many in attendance.

In addition, a pedestrian island between lanes of traffic where Somerville Avenue meets Massachusetts Avenue will remain, shifted a bit toward the T stop and widened some. The move is meant to better distribute motor vehicle traffic and allow for implementation of buffered bike lanes, which have gridded white paint separating bicycle and motor vehicle traffic. The buffered lanes are planned for both sides of Somerville Avenue.

“We want to move forward with this plan,” said Joseph Barr, director of the city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department, to a crowd of about 75 at Lesley University’ University Hall, “but that does not preclude future safety enhancements.”

The project would run “over the next few months [during] construction season,” he said.

Barr said plans were altered based on input from the community and an April 26 protest by the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, but he still received criticism from cycling activists who felt their message went unheard.

“Worthless,” is what one angry attendee called the plan, and city councillor Quinton Zondervan asked senior traffic engineer Patrick Baxter repeatedly why there could not be plastic flex posts – the primary demand of the April protest – where the city planned to put buffered bike lanes. An April 30 council order, though passed with some debate, also hoped for more extensive steps toward bike safety.

Baxter said trucks coming trough the snaky area would shear off posts in the curves, drawing criticisms from one upset cyclist that the city was “prioritizing trucks over bikes.” As part of the April protest, people formed a human wall in the Somerville Avenue bike lane buffer area to prove protected lanes were possible – and cars and bikes passed by without incident, using the lanes on either side of them.

Changes to the square were spurred by two deaths in 2016: Psychotherapist Marcie Mitler, 63, was hit by a car at 5:56 a.m. Feb. 18 while walking at Somerville Avenue and White Street, and died later at Massachusetts General Hospital; Ironwood Pharmaceuticals employee Bernard “Joe” Lavins, 60, was hit by an 18-wheel truck at 8:08 a.m. Oct. 5 while bicycling on Massachusetts Avenue across from the shopping plaza and pronounced dead at the scene.