MEEK AT THE MOVIES : Drinking Buddies ( 3 STARS )

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^ the gang’s all here : sexual tension in the mumble world of “Drinking Buddies”

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What happens when your best friend and co-worker is a member of the opposite sex and you’re hopelessly attracted to them but can’t pursue anything because you’re in a long-term relationship heading towards matrimony? That’s the plucky situ that Joe Swanberg’s neo-slacker essay plumbs, and it gets even more complicated when Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) bring their significant others along for a couples get away in the woods. In the middle of the night, after some silly drinking games, the two, who both work at a Chicago micro-brewery, sneak down to the beach and forge a raging bonfire. The sexual tension’s aflame too, a veritable tinder box of unrequited passion, needy and raw and open to that game changing spark. You might feel sorry for their SOs, but they’re not so innocent themselves; earlier in the day, Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Chris (Ron Livingston) went out for a hike, drank some wine and after an awkward conversation about love, life and fulfillment, also rolled perilously close to the precipice of crossing over.

If there’s one thing painfully obvious (“My Best Friend’s Wedding” obvious), it’s that Luke and Kate are meant to be together; thankfully, Swanberg, who was one of the early adaptors of mumblecore filmmaking (the lo-fi indie film movement where production values, most notably sound, play second fiddle to the visceral and ideological elements), along with the Duplass brothers (“Puffy Chair”) and Andrew Bujalski (“Funny Ha Ha”), is after something a bit more nuanced and un-Hollywood. For inexplicable reasons Chris leaves Kate which further enables Kate and Luke’s hop-infused brew-mance. The pair, along with other vat rats from work, spend many a late night lighting up the dingy side of Chicago, while Jill, conveniently a teacher by trade, sits at home toiling away on art projects for her special needs students.

The crescendo of consequence seems ripe for revelation, but not all batches of brew are crisp and golden, and this one goes sour when Kate begins to find her sexual liberation (by bedding other men) and Luke, normally the hip jokester, doesn’t quite know how to react. It’s a piquant conundrum of conflict to chomp into, but then again, we’re tagging along with largely un-anchored people, who, with the exception of needing the structure of a (any) nine-to-five and a best friend or convenient SO to make their daily meandering meaningful, don’t seem to have any discernible dreams for the future, not even a bungee jump or a Pacific crossing to see the Great Wall of China. And here Swanberg’s unbridled character exploration begins to sag under the weight of its subjects’ pouty malaise.

Don’t get me wrong, Swanberg’s a competent director and committed to his game. He’s cranked out more than a dozen flicks since 2005 and prolifically appears in other mumblecore and mumble-horror directors’ films–most recently as an uptight yuppie in “You’re Next”. If you look back at Swanberg’s career, many of his early slacker-themed films like “Hannah Takes the Stairs” (which stared Mark Duplass, Bujalski and Greta Gerwig) center around disenfranchised young adults seeking self-gratification. “Drinking Buddies,” beyond some foamy frivolity, takes a slightly older generation and goes down a path beyond ‘the me’ and into the realm of commitment, responsibility and family.

The secret yeast that makes “Buddies” ferment and keeps it sharp is Wilde. She’s done her share of being a sultry side dish (“TRON: Legacy”), but here she’s able to showcase a verve and range few might have thought possible. Johnson too, best known from TV’s “New Girl,” with his darting eyes and sly smile, is apple to effortlessly connote character through the awkward conflict of his facial features. Unfortunately, the normally redoubtable Kendrick (“Up in the Air”) and curmudgeonly Livingstone (“Office Space”) have less to work with. Their characters feel like props, lazily constructed puppets imbued with domineering asexual unattractiveness to underscore the inevitability of Luke and Kate. At times it feels like a cheap trick, but in the end, Swanberg has the last laugh as the film ties up on a surprising and contemplative high note.

Just perhaps, the maestro of mumblecore is ready for the mainstream?
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

BOSTON MAYOR RACE : THE BOSTON HERALD BLOWS IT

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^ Marty Walsh as Boston Building Trades Council Business Manager

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Yesterday in its editorial, the Boston Herald made two endorsements for Mayor: Dan Conley and John Connolly. I have no quarrel with their doing so. They should endorse. What upsets me is their going on to NON-endorse candidate Marty Walsh. That is harsh. Unfair was their reason : that until recently he has been the Boston Building Trades Council Business manager — a Union guy — and thus, said the editorial, not a friend of taxpayers.

This is bogus. Completely bogus.

Union workers pay taxes, don’t they ? They earn a solid paycheck, and thus they pay a lot of taxes. So what’s the Herald talking about ?

In a phrase : the prevailing wage law, commonly known as the Pacheco Law. By the Pacheco Law, workers on jobs pursuant to State-funded construction contracts must be paid the prevailing wage for union construction contracts made with private businesses.

What is so wring with that ? Yes, all taxpayers, not just union workers, pay into the higher hourly wage mandated by the Pacheco Law. Non-union workers would, it is true, cost less. And if that were the whole story, the Herald might have a point.

Except that that IS NOT the whole story. Union workers who earn the prevailing wage do not stuff their extra money into suitcases. They spend it. They enter the discretionary economy — where economic growth most flourishes — to buy discretionary things and thus help tons of businesses to exist, to hire their own workers, and — hopefully — to pay those workers well.

That is how a growth economy works and why a reductionist economy doesn’t. A growth economy isn’t just me and my wallet, you and your bills. A flourishing economy involves all of us who are in it. Money doesn’t stay put in any economy. It moves constantly, into my pocket, out of my pocket; into yours, out of yours; then on to the next and the next and so on. The more money that moves the more freely, the better an economy is for everyone.

To reduce construction workers — to reduce ANY workers, and here I specifically include fast-food workers, who are now seeking $ 15.00 an hour and should have it — to the lowest doable wage is to reduce the economy, to starve it of what it lives by. Is that what we want ? Really ? i think not.

Right now our economy is growing much more slowly than it should because a huge portion of the pay being earned in it is going to CEO’s and hedge fund managers an ever-decreasing amount of said pay is going to everyone else. An economy cannot grow — can hardly exist — if only a tiny few have money to participate in it. Is this not basic Economics 101 ?

Right-wing pundits blame unions for the problems besetting municipal budgets and the slow growth of private-sector jobs. They are wrong. Unions are nothing more than workers banding together to force reluctant employers to grant them fair earnings. Workers earning a collectively bargained income do not crater municipal budgets. That’s the consequence of many other events, the housing bear market especially.

As for employers’ wage policies, not all take a reductionist view. Many employers understand that a well-paid work team is an asset to a business. well paid workers don’t leave the job as quickly; and turnover is a huge — and largely avoidable — cost to businesses beset by it. Well paid workers also suffer less stress; and an unstressed work team is healthier, thus less likely to call out sick, and better motivated. How have these basic economic conditions been so sweepingly un-learned in today’s America ?

That Marty Walsh is a union guy is a good thing. Endorse him, or not, that’s fine. We at Here and Sphere haven’t yet endorsed, and it may not be Walsh whom we end up supporting. But please, do not dis-endorse him because he is and was a business manager for Boston’s Building Trades Council.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

NOTE : this article was updated on Sept. 13, 2013 at 11:12 EDT.

BOSTON MAYOR RACE : FORUM AT BOSTON TEACHERS UNION

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^ the lineup. next came the interrogation.

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Most of the candidate Forums of this campaign for Mayor have taken place at churches, conference centers, theaters, auditoria — public gathering places. Not so with the Forum called by the Boston Teachers’ Union (BTU). This one took place in their union hall and had the feeling more of an interrogation than a debate. The BTU feels threatened by developments in public education and advocacies for school change, and it made plain that it strongly disagrees with the direction and purposes, charter schools especially. BTU President Richard Stutman read portions of a 10-page manifesto — which in a printed handout was available on a literature table — of opposition to charter schools and to school reform by “corporate executives, entrepreneurs or philanthropists.”

The union hall was full — of teachers, especially the union’s activists, and they knew exactly what they wanted to hear. And not to hear. Not surprisingly, some of the eleven candidates on hand — Dan Conley was the absent — told the BTU gathering what it wanted to hear and were loudly cheered and applauded. Quite the surprise was that John Connolly, who pointedly advocates school “transformation — his word — by corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists (and by the Mayor), told the gathering exactly that, in well exampled detail. He gave reasons and stated goals, and he did not waver. He was received in almost total silence.

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^ John Connolly stood his ground.

David Bernstein — Boston’s premier political reporter (full disclosure: we both wrote for the Boston Phoenix), moderated. Being a playful and even ironic sort, he asked each candidate questions that would be hardest for them to answer; then picked out others of the eleven to give, he hoped, a competing view. It worked at first, but eventually the candidates began to interrupt, or to veer a response toward their agenda . Bernstein tried to cut off such manipulation but was not always successful. As he called upon the eleven in random order, occasionally he forgot one or two. Candidates had to raise their hands to be recognized.

The entire 90 minute event looked very much like a teacher and his class; appropriate, I suppose, for a Forum presented for teachers.

Still, many issues were raised : charter schools, the longer school day, arts and music, standardized testing (the MCAS), school kids’ health, parent involvement, diversity, students for whom English is a learned language, transportation, school construction and renovation. The diversity of responses was strong and plain to hear.

Rob Consalvo told the activists exactly what they wanted to hear, on every issue — charter schools too, of course — and passionately. as passionately was he cheered.

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^ Rob Consalvo : the BTU agenda is his agenda  (photo taken at a previous Forum)

John Barros outlined school reforms and problems with the detail and insight that he has gathered as a member of Boston’s school committee. particularly true was his observation that the public school system has been asked to do what so many of society’s systems have failed to do and that this is unfair to the schools. Barros thanked charter schools for finding new and innovative methods which the regular public schools have then adopted.

Charles Clemons, who opposes more charter schools, noted that Boston people today are 56 % of color, and, noting that diversity in the BTU has failed to meet 1975 goals, asked, “how many of the people in this room look like Boston ?”

Bill Walczak did not mention casinos even once. He affirmed his work in connecting the charter school that he created to the city’s health system and saw that as a model for all Boston schools.

Marty Walsh, who sits on the board of a charter school, passionately defended the school’s role in creating “best practices” for the entire system to adopt. He rejected the BTU’s assertion that elimination of difficult students is systemic to charter schools. Walsh called for a program of school construction and for a meaningful longer school day.

Mike Ross insisted that standardized testing is crucial to assuring that students will acquire core knowledge, and he called for the establishment of a city technology high school, noting that google.com did not open a Boston office because it doubted being able to fill even entry-level jobs with Boston high school graduates.

David Wyatt made no attempt to get an answer in if not called upon and, when called upon, said little — he the Stoic; but he did support charter schools for bringing competition into education, and he endorsed standardized testing.

Charlotte Golar-Richie was occasionally overlooked but, when she interrupted to speak, supported an arts and music longer school day. As for charter schools, she found them useful but did not find a need to increase their number.

John Connolly’s points have already been noted.

Felix G. Arroyo reminded the crowd that he is the husband, brother, and son of Boston public school teachers. He emphasized the language diversity, at home, that challenges so many Boston students in the classroom. He also saw an immediate need for arts, music, and crafts in the longer school day, noting how important crafts classes were to him.

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^ Felix G. Arroyo and John Barros : articulate and knowledgeable,  and not uncritically so, on public school concerns

Charles Yancey came late but made his time count. He called for the building of high schools which, he ranted, had been called for for years but nothing done. He would enforce a 1994 city ordinance granting school parents three days’ leave to visit their children’s schools and reminded the crowd of his mother, Alice Yancey, and how passionate she was about making sure that her son studied and learned.

And so it went. There was the beginning of a conversation about the City’s hugest and most intractable system. But only a beginning; with eleven hopefuls on hand, the school conversation stands at the sorting-out stage. Just as does the Primary itself.

That the conversation is just beginning was obvious from the many issues that were not discussed : school assignment reform (and transportation costs), teacher pay, funding school reforms, even the assaults, by students, sad to say, that afflict teachers almost daily. Some of these issues were discussed after the Forum as teachers and various newsies (including me) conversed in small groups.

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^ teachers were eager to converse with newsies and the candidates after the formal Forum

The BTU knows that it is losing the battle of public opinion about school reform. It wants badly to be heard — respectfully but forcefully. I hear the BTU. I have long experience of politics involving Boston schools, and I have nothing but respect for the energy, the poise, the courage of teachers who on every school day face exactly what John Barros said : the problems of society dropped at the school door for teachers and principals to deal with even as they try to perform their teaching mission : the teaching of knowledge.

Any school reform that does not find a central mission for the teachers, and pay accordingly, and that does not accord the teachers the last word on creating a curriculum and a classroom format is a reform that begins on the wrong foot. Any reform that seeks to downplay the teacher solidarity that a Union assures them is no reform at all. How can school transformation be a good thing if its first strike is to the one security that teachers, often overwhelmed by school problems, can count on ? Let us seek to make teachers’ jobs easier, not harder.

That said, I do not agree with the BTU’s position that charter schools detract from the public schools. No matter what format and curriculum the teachers decide (and I hope it is they who decide), charter schools offer a useful “but look here.” Useful because not even teachers know all that needs be learned about what works to educate.

All of the above needs be said, and often. But right now there is voting to be done. So how will the BTU teachers vote ? They are not stupid. They knew who was pandering, who was seeking common ground, and who was confident of him or herself. By no means should Consalvo, who was so noisily cheered, assume that the teacher activists are in his corner. My impression of their cheering — and not only for him — was for the statement, not the candidate. The teachers have a pretty solid idea of who is likely to win and who isn’t. After the Forum, I spoke to several, and they were quite clear about that being a factor in their vote on Primary day.

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^ Marty Walsh found friends at a union gathering hours after being slammed as a unionist by the Herald.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere