Tag Archives: Cambridge Day

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.

Raw

19 Mar

If you’re up on your festival buzz, you’ve likely heard about the swarm of ambulances called into the Toronto International Film Festival to extract viewers of the film “Raw” because they had passed out from the gore. A weave about a vegan who develops a taste for human flesh while away at college might do that to you, but what makes the film so visceral and utterly disturbing isn’t so much the blood-and-guts aspect but the cold realization that there’s nothing supernatural going on here (vampires, zombies and lycans, oh my) – just your average waif with an eating disorder that consumes her. And others.

The screening I attended passed out barf bags, which was clearly more of a joke/marketing gimmick than a splatter control concern. That was too bad; the film stands on its own, without such hype. Written and directed by first-timer Julia Ducournau, the arty lo-fi production brims with the creepy, slight alter-reality ambience of a Ben Wheatley film (“High Rise” and “Kill List”).

We catch up with Justine (Garance Marillier) as she’s being dropped off at veterinary college by her parents. She’s a demure ingenue who doesn’t eat meat (the whole family is vegetarian), so you can only imagine her surprise when dining at the cafeteria she bites into a chunk of sausage nestled inside her mashed potatoes. It’s a bad beginning, but the least of her problems. Before she can even settle in and meet her roommate, Adrien (a lean Rabah Nait Oufella), a hazing party blasts open the door and throws their belongings – mattresses and all – out the window. Subsequently all “rookies” are rounded up and forced to crawl up the stairs of the dorm and to a rave of sorts. For a week, we learn, the newbies are under the thumb of the older students and ritualistically doused with animal blood and forced to eat such dissection orts as rabbit livers. Continue reading

24 Feb

Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is a devilish little bit of social commentary that takes the essence of “Guess Who’s Coming to Diner” and forces it, with vehemence but also panache, into a “Wicker Man”/“Stepford Wives” construct. The result is something clearly borrowed, incredibly fresh and nearly perfect in light of the current political climate. What’s also remarkable is that the horror flick-cum-black comedy marks Peele’s directorial debut, and a surprising one at that – not only because is it so sharp and confident, but also because Mr. Peele is better known as half of the comedy team of Key and Peele on Comedy Central.

The setup’s simple enough. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an aspiring photog, agrees reluctantly to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams of “Girls”), whom he’s been dating for five months – just long enough to have to take these things seriously.

“Do they know I’m black?” Chris asks, a question that the lily-white Rose shrugs off, telling him that her dad would have voted for a Obama for a third time if he had the chance. It’s a pointed little barb, but since “Get Out” started filming long before it played at Sundance in January, I’m not certain Peele understood the whole political backdrop he’d be facing. Given the results of the election, the daggers the film throws couldn’t be any more on point. Continue reading

Paterson

30 Jan

There’s a quirky poetic flow to “Paterson” as in nearly every Jim Jarmusch film, seeping outward in languorous yet artful movements, and while “Paterson” is tightly coddled, it’s also one of the director’s more earthy and accessible efforts – something akin to the universality of a Frost poem, possessing the ability to sate on many levels while appealing to a diverse audience. And poetry is the operative word, as the film revolves around an aspiring poet by the name of Paterson (Adam Driver, finally in this film and “Silence” able to step out to the fore) who by day guides a boxy bus around the city of (you guessed it) Paterson, N.J.

The beauty of Driver’s performance is the quiet, soulful humanity imbued in the character. Paterson doesn’t drive his bus with contempt for the menial job or harbor any grand delusions of his higher mission as an artist – he’s not that arrogant douche! Quite the opposite. Poetry, we learn early on, is a passion that fills a hole in Paterson’s life, but he writes and observes quietly; Jarmusch, as the penning poet sits in his bus at the station waiting for the signal to hit the roads, superimposes the scrawlings onscreen with Driver in his purposeful drawl doing the narrative voiceovers. The poems are works by the poet Ron Padgett; the recurring “Love Poem” has a great talky line about matches: “Currently our favorite brand is the Ohio Blue Tip.” (If you’ve ever read Nicholson Baker, this will call to mind the mundane yet plumbing ditherings of “A Box of Matches.”)

Not much really happens in “Paterson,” though there is a slight, surreal crescendo toward the end, but what drives the film beyond Driver’s solid anchoring is Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic eye and the potpourri of personality that inhabits Paterson (the city). That’s especially so at Paterson’s home, where his partner and muse Laura (Golshifteh Farahani, channeling the playfully alluring foreign ingenue that Maria de Medeiros brought so vivaciously to life as Butch’s girlfriend Fabienne in “Pulp Fiction”) undertakes a different art project each day, mostly turning whatever it is she touches (curtains, cupcakes or a random wall in the small ranch home) into a black-and-white tiled mosaic, and the racially integrated bar where a pantheon of Paterson’s famous are hung as photos above the till. There’s an early mention of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and the Bob Dylan ballad that rings a bit off-tone, but the recursive reference to doctor and poet William Carlos Williams – who practiced medicine near Paterson during the first half of the last century and wrote an anthology titled for and about the town (containing several letters of fellow New Jersey poet Allen Ginsberg) – as Paterson’s idol and inspiration is a smartly baked layer of lyric genius that subtly yields background about the man and the town of the same name. Continue reading

Hidden Figures

7 Jan

One of the best films of 2016 (yes, it opened in New York City and Los Angeles a few weeks ago as part of awards season’s annual bait-and-switch shenanigans) happens to be a sentimental crowdpleaser that, for all its potential schmaltz and didactic pitfalls, maintains an incredibly poignant balance especially when it comes to matters of race – and there’s plenty of them; “Hidden Figures” is about three African-American women employed as engineers and mathematicians by NASA during the first space launch, just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic push for Civil Rights was gaining its groundswell.

It’s not a widely known bit of history, but Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monáe, successfully doubling up as an actor) and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, killer good) toiled for NASA during the Mercury space program as engineers and computers – mathematicians doing the technical legwork before Big Blue dropped its first mainframe – and proved critical in getting John Glenn up and into orbit. One of the film’s most telling – and touching – moments comes when Glenn (Glen Powell) meets Johnson during a technical assembly of scientists and mucky-mucks where she’s not only the only woman or person of color in the room, but the only one able to solve complicated flight variables mathematically. Later, when there’s a snag in the mission and the reentry point needs recalculating, he asks for her aid, referring to her simply as the “the smart one.” Continue reading