The films of Jean-Pierre Melville

3 Dec

6 Films To Celebrate French Noir Master Jean-Pierre Melville’s Centennial At The MFA

Serge Reggiani in Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Doulos," released in 1962. (Courtesy Rialto Pictures)closemore

If he were alive today, Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the great faces of French cinema, would be 100 years old. (He was born in 1917 and died of a heart attack in 1973). To commemorate the filmmaker’s 100th birthday, the Museum of Fine Arts is running a retrospective of the auteur’s work.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name (and too many Americans are), Melville minted chic, noir-ish gangster flicks that have been widely cited for their influence and echoed in the hip, popular works of Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann and John Woo. Melville also was a contemporary of, and collaborator with, many of the iconic directors of the French New Wave in the ’50s and ’60s — namely Jean-Luc Godard — and employed many of the great French actors of the time, most notably Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve.

Now revered for his unique style and approach (he made the fedora and the trench coat as synonymous with the French gangster genre as dusters and 10-gallon hats are to the American Western) Melville almost didn’t become a filmmaker. Born an Alsatian Jew by the surname Grumbach, he fled to England after the 1940 German invasion of France. Later, he returned as a member of the French Resistance. His nom de guerre was indeed copped from the “Moby Dick” author, who the young freedom fighter held in high regard. After the war, Melville applied to become an assistant director, but his license application was denied so he launched his own production company. The rest, so to say, is cinematic history. Melville produced a spartan 14 films — nearly all fine cut gems. Continue reading

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Update on Evergood Market

3 Dec

 

The storefront and fixtures at Evergood Market remain intact at 1676 Massachusetts Ave. nearly a year and a half after the store closed. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The Evergood Market space, empty for almost a year and a half on Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter squares, is being held so it can become another neighborhood grocery store, an owner said.

The 1676 Massachusetts Ave. property was not being actively marketed because Stone Investment Holdings is in negotiations with a butcher and grocer to occupy the space, but specifics couldn’t be given because terms and bank loans were all in flux, said Nancy Stone, one of the principals of Stone Holdings.

When asked about the fate of the property if the deal feel through, Stone said she was committed to bringing a similar business to the space – around 8,600 square feet between the ground floor and a basement.

Evergood shuttered in July 2016 after 67 years of operation, and residents of the Agassiz, North Commons, Radcliffe and Avon Hill neighborhoods have been wondering what will become of the space.

Residents have been frustrated by months of non-responses from the property owners and managers. Some who knew grocers interested in the space shortly after the store closed told identical stories of being stymied when attempting to make contact.

“The whole thing is indeed a mystery,” said Pattie Heyman, a Neighborhood 9 resident. “Why this store would be left almost a year and a half in the same condition with no cleaning up and a total eyesore is beyond my comprehension.”

Stone Holdings also owns nearby properties housing a Starbucks and the swank eatery Shepard. Marc Levin, part of the management team at Chestnut Hill Realty, acts as the leasing agent, but repeated inquiries as to the status of the property and its availability were ignored by Levin. His assistant said the property was not Chestnut Hill business and that Levin would need to respond to the query directly. (Initially the property’s availability was advertised in the window listed by UBA Realty, but eventually it came down. A call to UBA pointed Cambridge Day to Levin.)

The store’s founding family, the Scholnicks, sold the store 16 years ago to manager William R. Carr. Two years later, Carr died. His wife, Diana Carr, took over the store and its financial challenges, but aging equipment and deepening financial pressures took their toll, leading her to close the store.

The unchanged storefront and lingering fixtures inside serve as a reminder of the loss to the community. “As a regular customer I miss a grocery where I can pick up food to make dinner,” resident Sarah Block said.

The nearest grocery stores are Star Markets on Beacon Street in Somerville and in Porter Square.

Battle Over Bike Lanes in Cambridge

3 Dec

 

Fritz Donovan, presiding officer of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association, speaks at a Wednesday group meeting on bicycle concerns. (Photos: Tom Meek)

A neighborhood group gathered and voted Wednesday seemingly to form a committee urging city officials to reevaluate and fix recently installed bike lanes it felt weren’t addressing traffic-safety goals. It was similar to the conclusion of a Monday meeting held by a different group.

There was overlap in attendance between the Monday “Safe Streets for All” meeting in East Cambridge and the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association meeting held Wednesday, but Fritz Donovan, the neighborhood group’s presiding officer, said this was “a neighborhood initiative that had been set up before.” More than 60 people attended the earlier meeting; nearly 100 gathered Wednesday at a Spaulding Hospital meeting room, including association members, bicyclists and other concerned citizens.

After many speakers and a near-unanimous association vote to set up a committee, there was little time to discuss how the two groups might collaborate or cooperate in getting more bicyclist traffic enforcement, “revisiting” the installed bike lanes on Brattle and Cambridge streets and playing a bigger role in future installations. Continue reading

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

18 Nov

 

Director Martin McDonagh, a playwright best known for such dark comedies as “The Pillowman” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” put film audiences on pleasurable, if uneasy, heel with his cinematic crossovers “In Bruges” (2008) and “Seven Psychopaths” (2012). Humor amid violent doings – the graphicness of which you couldn’t make happen in the center of a stage – was the takeaway from those first two films; Tarantino meets the Coen brothers is in the ballpark, and what a glorious one it is. But McDonagh’s vision and style is something of its own, and it operates on its own bloody terms. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is more of the same, and a bit of a feminist anthem that arrives coincidentally, and poetically, as entertainment heavies including Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. are eviscerated for lewd and criminal sexual behavior.

As if a Coen influence was not enough, the film stars Frances McDormand, who ruled the roost in the brothers’ masterworks “Blood Simple” (1984) and “Fargo” (1996), for which she won an Oscar. (She’s also married to Joel Coen). Here McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a steely eyed woman who’s responsible for the three billboards of the film’s overly long title – and something of a bother to the town. Against blood-red backdrops the billboards say “Still No Arrests?”; “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”; and “Raped While Dying.” They concern the death of Mildred’s daughter, which has gone unsolved for months. Mildred blames the town’s beloved sheriff, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, able to keep pace admirably with McDormand). Continue reading

Justice League

18 Nov

 

The new super adventure inspirationally labeled “Justice League” is an extremely crowded affair littered with jumps in plot, and things end up exactly as one might expect: in a giant CGI beatdown with an arch-villain. Still, after the turgid “Batman v Superman” it’s good to see Zach Snyder fit a lot into a neat two hours, and finally do justice to the floundering DC Comics franchise. (An encouraging trend, considering the sharp and fun “Wonder Woman” directed by Patty Jenkins.)

Things pick up in the immediate aftermath of “BvS,” with Superman (Henry Cavill) still dead or comatose and his mortal darling Lois Lane (Amy Adams) burdened by grief and suffering reporter’s block. That leaves fellow “Leaguers” Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) to fend for the world as alien ghouls with dragonfly wings descend upon the planet in slow strokes, kidnapping folks. Batman (what is it with these movies where Christian Bale and Affleck talk in constipated growls from behind the mask, but are smoothly eloquent in Bruce Wayne mode?) deduces astutely that the nasty bug-beings are part of a bigger plot – to unite the three Mother Boxes (like the Infinity Gems over in the Marvel Universe) and give an entity known as Steppenwolf – not to be confused with the band founded by John Kay (“Born to be Wild”) or the novel by the tortured German novelist, Hermann Hesse – the ultimate power to terraform the earth and wipe out humankind. Continue reading

Appreciation

13 Nov

Remembering David Pendleton, film lover whose passion, generosity enlivened HFA

 

David Pendleton

The film community in Cambridge and Boston dimmed Monday when Harvard Film Archive programmer David Pendleton passed away after a long battle with cancer. Pendleton, 52, was a highly respect ambassador of film and its preservation, and a fixture in Harvard and Porter squares.

If there was one aspect about Pendleton – beyond his inexhaustible passion for film – cited universally by those who knew him, it was a kind and easy manner that allowed him to interact with filmmakers and the public seamlessly. “He was a generous collaborator,” said Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive. Pendleton spent 10 years as the HFA’s programmer, following Guest east from the Film & Television Archive at the University of California at Los Angeles. (Pendleton, who was born in Dallas, earned a doctorate in critical studies from UCLA.)

Pendleton especially loved French cinema and classical Hollywood, Guest said, but had an interest in world cinema that included building strong programing slates focused on Korean, African and African-American filmmakers. Pendleton was “very inclusive and had a soft sport for marginalized people, and wanted to give them a voice,” HFA publicist Brittany Gravely said.

One of the ongoing programs Gravely cites as part of Pendleton’s imprint on the HFA and its community is the monthly film/discussion forum “Cinema of Resistance,” designed to orchestrate a conversation about salient social topics through film. During his tenure Pendleton also complied “complete” retrospectives of some of his favorite filmmakers, including Robert Altman, Pasolini and Jean Renoir, and helped assemble “A Burt Lancaster Centennial Tribute” in honor of one of his favorite actors.

Special guests Pendleton was instrumental in bringing to the HFA, and whose works he helped curate, included Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Harmony Korine (“Spring Breakers”) and Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”). “David’s legacy,” Guest said, “was his ability to spark conversations between filmmakers and the public. He hosted many great evenings full of energy.”

“If there was one thing about David,” Gravely said, “he was thoughtful and unflappable, and always willing to reconsider things.”

Pendleton’s programs were cited regularly by the Boston Society of Film Critics (I am a member) in its year-end Film Series selections. “David’s programing was diverse, discriminating and eclectic,” Guest said, “and that made it exciting.”

Despite his advanced degrees and revered station in film preservation, Pendleton had a reputation for being accessible and open. “He was very nice and approachable man. I could always commiserate with him about the problems of running a repertory film program,” said John Galligan, curator of the Channel Zero repertory film series. “He was no snob.”

Pendleton is survived by his parents, his brother and two nieces. To honor his legacy, his family has urged donations to the American Civil Liberties Union, human rights organizations or LGBT groups.

Lady Bird

13 Nov

 

Greta Gerwig, the mumblecore queen who scored a breakthrough performance in Noah Baumbach’s Woody Allen-esque “Frances Ha” (2102) gets behind the lens for this semi-autobiographical reflection about a girl coming of age in Sacramento in the early 2000s. If there’s any question about how true to the bird it is, Gerwig is in her early thirties – would have been a senior in high school then, grew up in in Sacramento and attended a Catholic school, just like protagonist Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), aka the “Lady Bird” of the title, struggling to find the right boy to surrender her virginity to and the funds to go to college.

The intimate nature of the film (Gerwig also writes, but does not appear) builds in subtle yet palpable strokes with a devilishly barbed edge as it tackles the mandatory rites of senior year: prom, sex and college acceptance. One of the many angles that makes Christine such an intriguing character study isn’t so much her sass with a dash of surly, or red-shocked (dyed) locks that give her a tint of goth-punk, but the fact she’s a perpetual outsider, not religious and not well off, going to a parochial school and running in circles of affluence while dad (an endearing Tracy Letts), an outdated computer programmer, can’t land a job and mom (Laurie Metcalf, giving the best mom performance of the year behind Allison Janney in “I,Tonya”) hold the house together with stoic tough love.

In short, Christine is in a continually uphill battle – part of it her own obstinance – and along the way makes some provocative (and questionable) choices, be it the dumping of her weight-challenged best friend (Beanie Feldstein) for the popular rich girl (Odeya Rush) or her choices in men, the nice guy who’s too nice (Lucas Hedges, so good in “Manchester by the Sea”) and the cool hipster (Timothée Chalamet) about as deep as his veneer.

Many are hailing this as Gerwig’s directorial debut, though she has a co-directorial credit with mumblecore stalwart Joe Swanberg on “Nights and Weekends” (2008). She’s also worked on several projects with Baumbach and has clearly been a keen observer of technique and orchestration. The result is quite mature and astute for such a nascent filmmaker, but is it groundbreaking? No – let us not forget Orson Welles pumping out “Citizen Kane” at 24 – but it is fresh and has a bite that feels different even while treading in the same pool as other fine female coming-of-age efforts in the recent past – ”Palo Alto” (2013) and the more accomplished “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Gerwig seems focused and intent behind the camera, which plays against her usual screen presence as pleasantly generic quirky waif.

The real score for Gerwig and the film, however, is the casting of Ronan, a highly accomplished and capable actress who, in her early twenties, has been up for an Academy Award twice already (“Atonement” and “Brooklyn”). There’s never a moment on the screen that you don’t feel and believe every tic and motivation running through Christine’s veins. It’s seems so natural and fluent, you don’t think of it as acting. But don’t be fooled; it’s one of the year’s best performances.

“Lady Bird” is the kind of indie film like such recent hits “Moonlight” or “Boyhood” that possess mainstream crossover and critical appeal. It should also position Gerwig and Ronan as A-listers, able to call their own shots.