^ not much of a draft picker : Kevin Costner as NFL GM Sonny weaver, Jr (with Jennifer Garner) in Ivan Reitman’s “Draft day”

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Here’s something new : Kevin Costner back in a sports movie. Ok, maybe not new, but this time it’s football and not baseball, and he’s traded his cleats for a front office job. “Draft Day” is supposed to be a funny quirky race against the clock, cum romance, like “Jerry Maguire,” but it’s no all that funny. Costner does his job channeling his signatures : assured nonchalance as Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager of the Cleveland Browns.

The film starts off on the morning of the big titular day with Sonny going back and forth with his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner) about who he might pick, and of course she has some big news to tell him, but his phone keeps ringing. Cleveland has the number one pick in the draft and everyone wants it because there’s a QB out there who’s the next Tom Brady (which is ironic because the team that’s after him the most, the Seattle Seahawks, have Russell Wilson and just won the Super Bowl; kind of the same post- shoot conundrum that afflicted “Fever Pitch” when the Red Sox won their first World Series in 76 years and the filmmakers had to scurry to stay with the times).

Sonny, who fired his beloved Dad as head coach, seems to be a front office bonehead as he trades away the team’s next three number one picks and appears to be on the verge of being shown the door by the team’s owner (Frank Langella) who’s just as concerned about flash and pomp as he is about winning. It doesn’t help that Ali works for the Browns as well, and they’re not out as a couple, even though everyone knows.

In short Sonny’s in a world of shit and I won’t even mention the issues with his mother (Ellen Burstyn), ex-wife (Amanda Peet) or his new head coach (Denis Leary playing a Barry Switzer-esque role in that he had a Super Bowl ring because he inherited a championship caliber club).

As the clock winds down in the fourth quarter, the whole back and forth of the deal becomes more tiring than successive spring training sessions, as does the “are they, or aren’t they?” water cooler talk. All the actors are fine, it just feels like they’re given saw dust to recite and a circuitous plot that offers few gems as payoff for the rigor. It’s a neat premise and there are some attempts at deepening the human interest aspect of it (a star athlete trying to get paid to support his family of slim means vs. the flash QB who may not be all he appears to be), but the drama of the real draft and the unscripted nature of it, bears far more intrigue and consequence.

Next time producer/director Ivan Reitman (“Ghost Busters”) should draft a better team of writers.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



^ a deep dark closet of skeletons at the Weston family table in “August : Osage Country”

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There’s plenty of thespian timber and uncorked rage in this austere melodrama about familial dysfunction and reckoning out on the plains of Oklahoma. The emotional turbulence in “August: Osage County” is devastating, so much so, you could think of it as an angry twister wrecking havoc across the sleepy farm land, or as the evil step-sister to “Steel Magnolias,” appropriately shamed and exiled to the prairie for bad behavior.

If there’s any calm in the film, it’s the one that comes before the storm, and even that’s not so pretty. It all begins serenely enough as Beverly (Sam Shepherd) delivers an introspect confessional to Johnna (Misty Upham as the newly hired house help, who is Native American and has to, by job description, endure the oncoming onslaught passively) that he drinks too much — but that, at this later stage, it’s now tolerated by his wife because he puts up with her incessant pill popping. Beverly’s a dapper guy with a slight twang and a love for books. No sooner has he presented Johnna with a personal selection (TS Eliot) for her to read, that his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep) lopes through the door, red-eyed, in a bathrobe and hopped-up on something. Her hair’s short, matted and falling out. She looks like an extra from a film exposing Nazi atrocities.

We learn quickly enough that Violet has mouth cancer, which is both a touch poetic and ironic because what comes out of her mouth is nothing but cancerous. Point and case when she judgmentally asks Johnna if she’s an ‘Injun’ and what kind, and then proceeds to tear into Beverly for being a boozing philanderer and a do-nothing. Is it the pills or something more deep-seated? For a woman on death’s door and flying high, Violet has all the reserves of a Navy SEAL Team.

Soon, two of the three Weston daughters descend on the house, Iris (Julianne Nicholson) and Barbra (Julian Roberts) with her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and their precocious daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin changing it up impressively from her turn in “Little Miss Sunshine”). But Bev is missing, and oddly, no one seems too concerned. He’s subsequently found drunk and drowned, and it’s the funeral that summons in the third daughter, Karen (Juliet Lewis) and her Ferrari revving beau (Dermot Mulroney), as well as Violet’s controlling sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her introspective husband, Charles (Chris Cooper).

If the reveal about Bev’s demise seems a spoiler, just know that it comes in the opening few moments, and serves as the plot’s lynchpin for the potpourri of combative personalities to assemble and take off the gloves–if they were ever even on. I’ve been told that Tacy Letts’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play that the film’s based on, runs well beyond three hours on stage and that it’s also a touch more subtle and nuanced than John Wells’s screen adaptation. Letts’s works in general are angry and often violent compositions. If you need a reference, just check out the 2011 screen rendering of Letts’s “Killer Joe,” and you’ll know what I mean hook, line and grim sinker.

The cast of “Osage” features no less than five best acting Oscars among them (three of which are Streep’s), and Wells, either by design or timid admiration, throws open the barn door and lets the actors loose to steer themselves. The result is both impressive and muddled. Each hits notes with aplomb, but few seem to bounce off each other with any heartfelt synergy. Wells, who has worked well with a diverse and ranging ensemble before (including Cooper) in “Company Men,” tries to condense too much meanness into the lean two-hour time-frame; and, perhaps, the more grounded medium of the screen alleviates the inherent suspension of disbelief that comes with the stage.

It’s not until the post-funeral feast that the Westons’ deep, dark closet of skeletons, hinted at for so long, finally gets opened. Incest, childhood abuse, tough times and infidelity get trotted out with vitriolic accusation. Cancer and the recently passed loved one seem to be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, and the men sit by emasculated and soak it all up silently like cornbread in curdled gravy. Barbra, as tart tongued as she is, garners some degree of sympathy; she’s trying to be a good mother and repair her marriage after her husband has stepped out with a coed under his tutelage. The most endearing of the Weston clan, however, are Nicholson’s Iris, a branded spinster who’s never left the Dust Bowl, and Mattie Fae’s meek son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch in an intriguing juxtaposition from his recent turns as Khan and Julian Assange), who’s constantly berated a halfwit by his own mother. Only they harbor any hope or optimism despite their limited possibilities–a notion that becomes even more isolated and embossed by the hate and vitriol raging around them.

With a less competent ensemble “Osage” might have been just a disturbing, forgettable go. Even with A-listers, the pecking and picking rages on far too long with scant few moments of reflection or atonement. It’s the somber quiet ones like Charles Sr., and Iris and Charles Jr. who give life to the Weston’s big house of pain on the prairie.

— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



^ Leonard DiCaprio as penny stock pusher in Martin Scorcese’s “Wolf of wall Street”

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“The Wolf of Wall Street” is everything “American Hustle” wanted to be and more. It’s smart, mean and makes a pointed political statement while roiling in the excess of its characters. As far as drama goes, let’s face it, : rags to riches and success isn’t so alluring. No one wants to see a nice guy make it, they want to see someone claw their way up, live large and fall hard. Take, “Scarface,” “Goodfellas” or “Wall Street” to name a few. “Wolf” and “Hustle” are less violent and black and white, but the elements, greed, lust, envy and hubris, are all there in fine, fermented form.

Both films are based on true stories and take place in New York City during high flying eras that predate cell phones and the rampant use of the internet. “Hustle” jogs through the Abscam scandal of the 1970s via a petty con who, ensnared by the Feds, helps draw in corrupt pols. “Wolf” is smaller fare, following the hilariously self-destructive travails of a hungry wanna-be who, from humble origins, gets his brokerage license on the eve of the Black Friday market crash of 1987 and instead of cashing out and moving on to something more sure-footed, goes on to parlay his smooth cold-calling skills into a pump and dump scheme, manipulating the penny stock market and making a killing on the fifty-percent commissions. The sad underlying truth to “Wolf,” as wonderfully articulated by an over-the-top broker (a blazing Matthew McConaughey adding to his banner year) teaching the naive ‘Wolf’ pup the ropes over a five martini lunch, is that money in motion is change in your pocket. Always be selling and always be buying; forget about value added, if they make money, good, but it’s all about movement.

As that young fry of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, who morphs into a coked-up kingpin of crack and cash, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers one of the strongest performances of his impressive career. It’s also Martin Scorsese’s best film since “Goodfellas.”

Marty, who’s a soft spoken reflective soul, has made some of the most violent, in-your-face films of all time. “Wolf” is no exception. Sure, there’s no real gun play or jaw cracking per se, but “Wolf” is brutal. You never see the plumbers or middle class mom and pops who are defrauded, led astray and into ostensible ruin, throwing their life savings on junk because a faceless, confident voice on the other end of a telephone told them he was going to make their dreams come true and put them on easy street. Jordan, too, is a train wreck, snorting coke and entertaining escorts in the office during working hours. Yes the film’s pretty racy, working women work the conference rooms during work hours, servicing the execs, before giving the new hires a turn, and female co-workers, either caught up in the frenzy of money, the desire to get ahead or the sheer love of sex, are as happy to get on their knees and perform felatio as they are excited by closing a deal. Belfort lives big and he’s fairly generous, unless you do something to irk him; then you are fired in the most humiliating way possible. And he does all this while popping qualudes, getting a candle inserted into his rectum and raising a family.

How a self-interested SOB like Belfort spins so rivetingly, and for three hours, is both tribute to DiCaprio and the screenwriter Terence Winter (“Boardwalk Empire” and “The Sopranos”) who get at the decadent depravity and don’t try to make Jordan heroic as his moral compass falls out. “Hustle” tries to have its cake and eat it. The characters too don’t feel real or likable. Jordan lives the American dream and nightmare, and it couldn’t be more illumination or a reflection of what ails us. Jordan is Gordon Gecko with a heart and insecurity, a boy with a supermodel and a race car. The formula has played out tragically for celebs and athletes before, but none have done it with such bombastic aplomb as Jordan.

The supporting cast which includes Jonah Hill as Jordan’s wigged-out wingman, Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent on Belfort’s tail, and Rob Reiner as pop Belfort.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



^ losing it or winning it — or both ? Bruce Dern and Will Forte in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”

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In his films, Alexander Payne has shown strong predilection for men somewhere
north of their prime, still lost and looking for grounding. The roots of which
took hold with “About Schmidt” (2002), got whacky and whiney in “Sideways”
(2004) and then moved out to the island of Hawaii with a more dour tone in “The
Descendants” (2011). Payne’s latest, “Nebraska” maybe be the ultimate in mature
male malfunction — in a sweet elegiacal way — ties back to “Schmidt” too, as
its protagonist, Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, has a dry, fly-away
comb-over reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s hair-challenged Schmidt;
ironically, in both films, the men’s wives were played by the same actress,
June Squibb, who practically upends and nearly steals the film as it sails into
the third act.

The setup’s pretty rudimentary : the aging Woody insists on getting from
Montana to the State that’s the film’s title, because he’s received a note by
mail informing him he’s won a million dollars. We’ve all gotten that Publisher
Clearing House nonsense before, and we all know it’s bunk, but Woody, frail and
vacant, seems to be around the bend faculty-wise,;whether it’s depression, too
much sauce over the years or dementia (the film never floats such possibility,
though it would have gone the furthest in selling the rhyme behind Woody’s
insipid quest). As a result, Woody can’t drive, so his forty-year-old son, David (Will Forte),
stuck in a dead end job at a Best Buy knock-off and dumped by his Rubens-esque
girlfriend, agrees to take on road trip duties. These he passively views as an opportunity
to take stock and an odd chance to give his Dad some sense of closure. It adds to the
calm turmoil, too, that Woody was never a present father or husband, and drank too much;
and still does.

Woody and David drift along fairly innocuously until a bar brawl derails them
and, against Woody’s wishes, they make a side excursion to Woody’s old hometown,
where the streets have a depressed, 1950s sheen and Woody’s tangential kin are
little more than couch-potato rubes. Adding to the none-too-friendly homecoming,
Stacy Keach slithers in as Woody’s sleazy old auto shop partner; and the million
dollar prize becomes big news and a big joke in the sleepy cornfield town. As
push comes to shove and revelations hang on the horizon, the rest of Woody’s
Montana clan roll in. For all the hoopla, you’d think Woody held a contested
winning lottery ticket.

Dern’s gaunt frame holds the film up firmly even though the role is fairly
two-note. More is asked of Forte in a thankless bit as the rational son caught
up in the nonsensical senior moment, while SNLer, Bob Odenkirk fills the juicier
part of the cantankerous older brother who wants to be news anchor.

Payne boldly shot the film in muted black and white. The result is a gentle,
grainy dimming that mirrors Woody’s wayward cognizance. It’s a quiet
accomplishment, too, that Dern and Payne have notched. The pair have collectively
made an American asshole sympathetic and full bodied. Part of that’s done by
surrounding Woody with even deeper steeped miscreants. It may be a cheap trick,
but sadly there’s no sleight of hand in the truth.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



^ Jennifer Lawrence and josh Hutcherson as Katniss and Peeta in “Catching Fire” as sequel to “Hunger Games”

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The second time may be a charm, but hey, it’s all relative, as the first “Hunger Games,” written and directed by Garry Ross (“Sea Biscuit” and “Pleasantville”), felt paunchy, disingenuously deep and retro flimsy given the state of computer enhanced film-making these days. That cinematic first chapter of Suzanne Collins’s runaway YA hit was a tad muddled; then again, it had the burden of informing newbies of what they needed to know about the austere future-world of Panem and its kid-against-kid death matches without boring the stuffing out of its loyal readerships’ attention-challenged minds.

What made the first “Hunger Games” adaptation burn beyond its kinetic plot and high kitsch, was its star Jennifer Lawrence — already revered for her work in “Winter’s Bone,” and subsequently rewarded with an Oscar for her performance in “Silver Linings Playbook.” The actress, with her wide luminous face, aptly brought to the fore the deep disdain and skepticism imbedded in her can-do heroine, Katniss Everdeen. But living under the tyranny of a fattened plutocracy obsessed with power, control and hedonism while the masses slave and starve, tends to do that to anyone possessing faint embers of freedom and righteousness in their bellies.

Much has been made of the franchise’s lifting from the 1999 Japanese thriller, “Battle Royale” (also made into a movie). Both in their own right clearly borrow of “1984” and “Lord of the Flies,” and more to the point, do dumbed-down fusions of the two groundbreaking classics. In cinematic form, the series roils eerily with the grand cheesiness of “The Running Man,” “Logan’s Run” and even “Battle Star Galactica,” but where those vehicles were tongue-in-cheek, “Games” is either dead-on serious or wholly over-the-top spectacle. Both ends offer their rewards, but overall, it’s hard to consume the film’s higher reaching message–if there truly is one–with any respectable seriousness.

“Fire” picks up where “Hunger Games” left off : Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) taking the victors’ tour of the thirteen impoverished districts to pay honor to the fallen tributes (those who died in the last movie). The caveat injected by President Snow (Donald Sutherland oozing with megalomaniacal aspiration) is that the pair have to sell themselves as a romantic couple, a facade the Capitol wishes to project as an opiate to pacify the increasingly restless populace. It’s something Katniss, who has a secret lover (Liam Hemsworth), isn’t interested in doing, but when her family’s well-being is thrown into the mix, she plays nice–for a while.

That unrest grumbles with the nascent makings of a revolt (what took so long?) and bears Katniss as the reluctant face of the movement. Snow, none too pleased by this, invokes a double jeopardy clause of sorts and initiates a new Hunger Game, pitting the victors of the past against each other. It’s at this point that Phillip Seymour Hoffman wanders in from left field as the new game master orchestrating the deadly doings in the arena–which are far better imagined and more tautly rendered (by director Francis Lawrence, a vet of fantastical mayhem, with “Constantine” and “I am Legend” to his credits) this time around. The movie’s nearly halfway over by the time we arrive at the game, but the good news is that the steep preamble means plenty of raucous screen time for Woody Harrelson, back as the drunkard former victor, Haymitch Abernathy and Stanley Tucci as garish game show host Caesar Flickerman, who with his pompadour and false sincerity, is an entertaining rival to Richard Dawson’s indelible snake from the “The Running Man.”

If there’s one pebble-in-the-shoe issue I’ve had with the series, it’s the hokey grandiloquence about oppression and rebellion that postures some type of meaningful political statement. Simply living in such dire straits as those in the districts do, one can only imagine that it would be preferable to go out in a blaze of defiance than die a starving cur, beaten and broken. The script, bolstered by “Slumdog Millionaire” scribe Simon Beaufoy, doesn’t make true inroads here. Not yet anyhow. And in there too, Hoffman, the brilliant actor, feels inert and lost amongst the pomp. So too does Sutherland as the flat, cut-out dictator, little more than Ming the Merciless dropping in from Mongo. Places on our planet, less overt in their tyranny–Liberia and Libya, for example–have tossed dictators. Snow and his ilk have been in power for seventy-five years, and all that after a bloody revolution, which makes you wonder what kind of shit hole Panem was before. (Panem is purportedly some amalgam of North American countries).

In the end (again) it’s Lawrence and her resolve that carries “Games.” A star of less capability might have given a less nuanced performance and put the weight on Lawrence–the director. Once the games are on, the film flies like a deer through the woods. And it’s here too, that Jena Malone drops in as one of the victors, full of sass and verve, pulling off a loquacious costume change in an elevator before the eyes of other riders. Like Harrelson and Tucci she adds a well-timed shot of zest. The two men circling Katniss however don’t fare as well. Hutchinson and Hemsworth are often wooden idols enamored with Katniss, constantly dumbstruck and inert. Thankfully Lawrence is in the middle and capable of making the stilted eddy palatable.

Displeasingly, the film ends abruptly. Like the penultimate “Harry Potter” chapter it’s a hinge for the next installment, and while that’s obnoxious in the broad sense, it does leave one wanting in all the best ways possible. Once skeptical, I’m now hooked.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



^ Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nelisse in Brian Percival’s World war Ii pot-boiler “The Book Thief”

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Call me a curmudgeon, but it seems today that all the haute, wild-fire books that are flimsy quick reads, hitting on one or two hot issues and built around a slightly-more-than two-dimensional hero or heroine, have become sure-fire template fodder for profitable spins into film. “Twilight” maybe the most egregious example and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” itself notoriously birthed from the “Twilight” franchise, is one in the making. Then there’s the “Hunger Games.”

What a book about the Holocaust might have to do with this phenomenon may seem far flung or troubling, but Markus Zusak’s novel, which the movie “The Book Thief” is based upon, is little more than a safe PG watering down of the horrific events that took place in Germany leading up to, and during, World War II. It’s more young adult than dramatic literature or historical record. As a matter of fact, it’s not history at all, but historical fiction, another genre, along with YA, rapidly budding and laying fertile ground for studios execs who see a ready and willing-to-pay audience lined up en masse for a cinematic translation of their beloved book.
It’s a lazy and vacant process, but also good business.

That said, the film adaptation of “Thief,” has much in its corner. Brian Percival, the hand behind the hit PBS series “Downton Abbey,” directs ; Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush and Academy Award nominee Emily Watson head the cast. Unfortunately, the material, while earnest, is beneath them. Percival at times seems a bit befuddled by the bombast going on in the bigger world, and it doesn’t help that his ability to string together tight cloistered moments of intimacy, which worked so well in the smaller medium, gets compromised in the grander, more urgent framework.

For all purposes, Western Europe could be Middle Earth and the Nazis orcs, as all are essentially grotesque minions performing their bloody tasks sans remorse and often with a trace of glee. The imperiled heroine driving the plot comes in the pint-sized form of Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a young curly-locked waif embossed with wide wondrous eyes who, on the run with her mother (who’s an accused communist under scrutiny), is turned over to the tart tongued Rosa (Watson) and her reserved husband, Hans (Rush) for foster rearing.

Much of what we learn about Liesel is told to us in ominous voice-overs by Death, who admits he is smitten with the girl as he pays a visit to the fleeing family, aboard a train, to claim her younger brother. Why Death is so infatuated with Liesel is unclear, but our notorious and unseen narrator speaks with avuncular charm as if this were a Christmas tale (voiced by Roger Allam) and calmly assures us with his sagacious omniscience that all is as he says it is; and it’s easily and wholly believable despite the troubling the nature of the source.

The meaning of the film’s title stems from Liesel’s penchant for pinching bound tomes; something ironic initially, because she can’t read and is routinely chided at school for her developmental inadequacy. Early on she nips a gravedigger’s manual, and later pilfers books from the library of a Nazi commandant, whose wife has taken a liking to Liesel. Hans catches onto Liesel’s activity and the pair forge a palpable bond during covert candlelight reading sessions. Rosa too begins to soften from her austere facade, but then the nascent familial unit is challenged when they take in Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish refugee whose father saved Hans’s life during the first world war.

Nélisse, who looks something like Emma Watson from her Harry Potter years, handles the burden of the focus well. She’s solidified by (Emily) Watson and Rush who go a long way to cement over the maudlin air-brushing. The film does well to give Liesel complex affections for the older Max and her towheaded classmate, Rudy (Nico Liersch).

In the fantastical distillation of events and atrocities, much of the outside pressure comes from basement sweeps (for Jews) by friends and neighbors now serving the Fuehrer and Brown Shirts who bully the fleet-footed Rudy for idolizing Jesse Owens. The cinematography by Florian Ballhaus (“Devil Wears Prada”) is artistic and opulent, especially the stunningly stark opening sequence as a black train (and later, a black limousine) travels through the snow covered countryside, endlessly pristine and crystalline. The metaphor for innocence and darkness is conspicuously there, but rapturous to behold no matter what.

For what it is — a foot in the door of Ann Frank’s world– “Thief” may pay dividends if it channels young viewers to Wikipedia to review history and fact. Other films that have played loose with the record, “Life is Beautiful” and “Inglorious Basterds,” have done well by deepening the understanding of the horror and inhumanity. “Thief” unfortunately is a heart-string pulling yarn ostensibly spun for the marketplace that employs the world-changing war as a plot driving backdrop. It’s shameless artifice and in that, true meaning is lost.

— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : Blue is the Warmest Color ( 3.5 STARS )


^ passion in a girls’ house : Abdellatif Kechiche and his two blues, Adele and Lea

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Abdellatif Kechiche’s beguiling portrait of passion and betrayal received much ado at Cannes where it won the top prize and garnered an NC-17 rating as it came ashore here in the ‘States. At three hours length, the French film, originally and more simply titled “The Life of Adèle.” is aptly just that, the tale of a young woman coming of age and her sexual awakening. The big brouhaha whelmed up over Adèle’s true love being another woman, and for the middle third of the film, as their relationship blossoms, the girls, one in high school and one in college, have torrid couplings under the noses of their parents. It’s pretty graphic too, with lip-to-labia contact, contorted scissoring and deep tissue rump massages.

The first of these protracted scenes feels apt and genuine as it’s fueled by ardor and emotion, but the follow-ons, by comparison, feel staged and exploitive. Still, it’s how the two women, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux), meet and their journey that drive the film, not the over-the-top sex-capades. Adèle, fairly popular at school, has a quick, trivial interlude with a male classmate, who after achieving conquest, becomes cold and aloof. Then, out at a gay club with male friends, Adèle wanders into the abutting lesbian meet-market where she’s instantaneous shark bait. Across the bar, she and the blue-haired Emma (perhaps the impetus for the American title–and the fact, that Adele is almost always wearing a blue dress or like-hued attire) repeatedly lock eyes. The sharks circle closer and take their exploratory nips. That’s when Emma steps in and pulls Adele from a persistent plier, offering simply a sprig of earnest camaraderie, without pander or expectation, but also, clearly there’s desirous intent.

Nothing happens that night or for a while. Emma shows up after school one day and the two hang out and have lazy conversations about life and art — and for that very public schoolyard pickup, Adèle becomes ostracized by her classmates who demand to know if she’s a “dyke” or not. It’s not the only speed bump in their evolution. Emma has a significant other and Adèle struggles with her identity, but in slow intimate moments, Adele’s inhibitions give way to curiosity and it is she, not Emma, who launches the first kiss.
Following the fleshy entanglements of notoriety, the film jumps ahead a few years, Emma has completed art school and is looking for inspiration and her big break. With piercing celestial eyes, a noticeable gap between her teeth and icy blonde hair, she looks even more Bowie-like and is more focused and driven than her carefree, clubbing earlier self. Adele, still the youthful, broad-toothed ingenue has become a kindergarten teacher and the two live together in a cozy row house. Everything is near perfect; Adèle poses nude for Emma, the art community gathers to admire Emma’s paintings and are taken by the ravishing lipstick lesbian and muse who has unlocked Emma’s inner talent. It is here that success, alienation and infidelity become the serpent in the garden and the film turns sharply into a meditation on depression, disconnection and anger.

Interesting that all this insight of the inner workings of young Parisian lesbians comes at the fingertips of a seventy plus year-old Tunisian director. Kechiche’s other films, “Black Venus” (2010) and “The Secret of the Grain” (2007), dealt too with forms of class-ism, and while less intimate in the characters’ interactions, their insights were more intimate. In “Blue,” amid all the steamy sensuality and posturing about passion and irrevocable yearning, there’s something that never fully carries through. Emma changes and morphs into something less appealing, yet tangible and empathetic while Adèle remains at sea. Then again, not everything in life is tidy and neat, some people try new things to find out who they are and in the process hold much inside, much too tightly. It’s tres French and tantalizing in all the right ways, underscored by the way Kechiche ends the film with pointed ambiguity.

— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies


 ^ animated turkey : jimmy Haywood’s “Free Birds”
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Poultry and tradition, that’s what’s on the menu in this animated butterball about America’s family holiday and the secret lives of turkeys. You can’t argue with the film’s angle about the big birds wanting to live, after all how would you feel if all you did was gorge out on death row and pray that your number doesn’t get called as the calendar flips from October to November each year? But re-scripting history and prominently featuring death and violence in nearly every frame, that’s a fairly indignant miscalculation for a kiddie flick.
Not that “Free Birds,” is all stuffing and no trimmings. The 3D animation is crisp and vivid, and there are some quirky touches wittily infused into the script by writer/director Jimmy Haywood (“Horton Hears a Who” and “Jonah Hex”). The most cheeky and rewarding of which is the inclusion of Facebook humor sensation and former Enterprise crew member (Sulu) George Takei as the voice of S.T.E.V.E (Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy), a top-secret military time machine. Also adding to the curio is the presidential first daughter as a willful and rambunctious tyke who suffers bouts of narcolepsy.
What any of this has to do with turkeys and Thanksgiving might seem irrelevant, but rest assured : it is all about the birds. “Free” opens amidst a flock of nervous turkeys shuttered in a dark barn debating who’ll be next. One intrepid gobbler, Reginald (voiced by Owen Wilson) makes a call for solidarity and for all to repel the oncoming farmers. For his effort he’s offered up as the sacrificial lamb. Luckily though, his destiny is a trip to the White House where the Reagan looking, Clinton sounding president pardons the young tom and relegates him to the confines of Camp David where the avian settles into a coddled life of watching a cheesy Latin soap opera on cable and ordering pizza from a stoner delivery boy.
Things can’t get any better, but then Jake (Woody Harrelson) shows up — a flighty feathered agent of the T.F.F. (Turkey Freedom Front) claiming he’s seen the ‘Great Turkey’ and that Reggie must come back across time with him to stop the first Thanksgiving to save all turkeys forever. Reggie thinks Jake is nuts and he’s onto something because Jake, while big and imbued with platoon leader-like bravado, can’t stream together a single solid conscious thought. Reggie reluctantly signs on for the quixotic quest and in a bit happenstance, the two uncover a secret silo under Camp David and S.T.E.V.E., who whisks the toms back to 1621, three days before the first Thanksgiving.
You’d think the turkeys of old would be the wild, awkward fliers that grace the bourbon bottles of today, but not so, they’re just as earth-bound as today’s doughy domesticated ilk. To evade the settlers’ muskets and dogs, they’ve taken to the trees like monkeys (swinging from vines like Tarzan) and, like gophers, have built a subterranean colony in a cliff side of the Plymouth shore.
Bizarre as this all may sound, there is historical justification for the treatment.  From the Smithsonian annals, Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended the first Thanksgiving, wrote, “Our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.”
And with that, Haywood and company render Governor Bradford (Dan Fogler) a plump buffoon and Myles Standish (Colm Meany) a sneering master of the hunt. If your kids are looking for a history lesson from this, be prepared to do mucho explaining.
Ironically, the hunted birds can be seen as an allegory for the Native Americans, hiding in order to survive the invading enemy’s superior firepower while they plot ways to reclaim their land and way of life. Indians are, for that matter, nearly nonexistent in Haywood’s farcical fantasy, other than the notion that Bradford believes they are the key to reversing Plimoth Plantation’s ills, as the settlers have yet to learn how to work the land and are starving; and in one fairly unfunny scene, someone actually does keel over dead from hunger.
Probably the most grim scene however, is the flashback to young Jake’s existence in a caged turkey factory, where thousands of birds sit in muted grey cages fattened and immobile. It oddly evokes connotations of the Holocaust, which is a just another unsettling juxtaposition of the film. The poults in the ‘nursery,’ might educe some ‘awws’ and Amy Poehler as the hen babe with a lazy eye who sets Reggie’s tail feathers on edge, endears too, but in the end, this free-form history lesson is a flightless foul.
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



^ mixed up shook up bad gals and bad guys : including Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz in Ridley Scott’s “The Counsellor”

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Not so long ago the Coen Brothers deviated from their usually quirky fare and wove a hard-boiled yarn about lawmen and criminals playing it loose and lethal as they pursued an elusive satchel of money back and forth across the Southwest border.  The basis for that masterpiece came from the laconic and acerbic prose of Cormac McCarthy’s similarly titled novel, “No Country for Old Men.” And in an odd and intriguing, first time move, the scribe, for iconic director Ridley Scott (“Alien” and “Blade Runner”), has delivered his first original screenplay. The result is full of pointed soliloquies, diatribes imbued with philosophy and poetry and even daubs of philosophy regarding poetry; but the mainstays, of course, are protracted dissertations on death and destiny, followed invariably by death.

Just as in “No Country” the plot is driven by an accidental anti-hero ensnared in a macabre web of underworld misdoings. In short, McCathy has cooked up an assured rearrangement of “No Country.” It’s not on par by any means, but it is entertaining. And, if you haven’t gotten enough of him lately, Michael Fassbender tackles the eponymous role (that’s all he’s ever called), as a square-jawed, fashionably stoic defender, who, while very dapper and upper crust, has a litany  of unsavory clients. One, an imprisoned mama kingpin (Rosie Perez put a lot of pizzazz into the brief role), asks him to pay a fine for her son who’s in jail for a traffic violation (going over 200 mph). He reluctantly complies, but doesn’t know that the kid is involved in a scheme to hi-jack a 20 million dollar drug shipment. Which doesn’t matter, because by sheer association he’s now considered one of the brains behind the ever expanding plot.

Zanies and assassins from every corner of the muted desert town start to drift up. And, if the similarities to “No Country” haven’t hit you over the head at this point, Javier Bardem drops in for good measure as the shady club operator who has a few nascent business dealings with the Counsellor. Bardem’s real life wife, Penelope Cruz, shows up too, as the Councilor’s betrothed, but she’s mostly just garnish and a bargaining chip. The real feminine fire power comes from the gams of Cameron Diaz as the high priestess of the Southwest gangland. She’s flip, enjoys Gucci and Prada and doesn’t value life too much, and, if she so desires it, she’ll fuck a Ferrari (no joke).

Brad Pitt’s in the mix too as another shady sort who advises the Counsellor on how to get his neck out of the noose, but his role, like Cruz’s, feels more ornamental than substantive and perhaps somewhere out there, there’s  a studio exec who thought it would be devilish fun to release Pitt and Fassbender in this western noir the same week the pair appeared in the more serious, “12 Years a Slave”–celluloid buddies to save the day at the box office?

The problem with “The Counsellor” isn’t so much the every twisting and inward folding machinations that keep the engine humming. That works quite well, the problem is that none of these people are likable and Fassbender’s Counsellor is such a stiff, you never really give a rat’s ass if he gets offed or not. But the film looks great. Scott has always been a visual stylist and really summons up the dusty milieu with artistic elan.  McCarthy too packs it with some rich treasures and a potpourri of indelible underlings. Heads roll (literally) and the stash of drugs is carted around a septic truck that from time to time gets shot up and re-patched so that the shit don’t stink. That’s the wicked type of fun “Counsellor” has. It’s not much, but it clicks along just enough.

— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : All is Lost ( 3 STARS )


^ nameless upon the sea shall he chance : Robert Redford as “Our Man” in J. C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost”

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Open vastness can be an aesthetic wonderment, breathtaking to behold, like the dark cold of outer space in “Gravity” or the endless desert in “Lawrence of Arabia,” but given a rip in a suit or a missed rendezvous at an oasis, that hypnotic intoxication with the serene forever can quickly become the edge of a hapless demise where outside intervention becomes a mathematic improbability and personal perseverance, the only shot at salvation.

In his sophomore effort, “All is Lost,” young filmmaker J. C. Chandor, who received an Academy Award nomination for his bold debut “Margin Call,” employs the sea as his beauteous hell. The film’s title is a shard from a letter written by a hopeless yachtsman adrift at sea in a life raft. No, this is not the second coming of “The Life of Pi”; “All is Lost” is not that existential, though the lone character, who has no name (the credits list him as ‘Our Man’) does go through an existential crisis of sorts. He also endures a series of Jobian trials that would force most people to just cash in their chips and go swimming with the sharks.

The imperiled seaman is played by none other than Robert Redford. Who, well into his later years, has the handsome grizzled look of one who has been at sea for some time. Not a salty old tar mind you, but the preppy, pleasure cruising version of Hemingway’s ‘Old Man,’ dressed ruggedly effete in cable knit sweaters and Bermuda accoutrements.
When we first catch up with Our Man penning his letter, we make just a tang of his hopelessness and sense of imminent demise before the story back-jumps eight days. Our Man now comfortably rests in a well-stocked, thirty-nine foot yacht somewhere in the Indian Sea. But the tranquil moment falls ephemeral to a sudden disturbance that rocks his boat violently from the side, the way that Bruce, the pet named shark in “Jaws,” effusively, fatally weakened the Orca. Examination atop reveals that a shipping container from a passing cargo ship has fallen off and ruptured his hull, and, without the divine intervention of a foaming mad Robert Shaw wielding a baseball bat, has also trashed his communication systems too.

So there he is, marooned on the high seas, and we don’t know much about Our Man. We don’t know if solo cruises in exotic and far flung places is something he does on a regular basis, or who exactly might be waiting for his letter back home. What we do know is that he’s confident at sea and at terms with himself as he takes to mending the ship’s hull calmly and methodically. He’s no MacGyver per se; there’s no presto-magico invention to save the day, just slow knuckle-breaking work and hopeful trial and error validation.

The repair merely stays his execution, as violent tempests and other extreme maladies close upon Our Man. Redford’s understated and nuanced performance along with Chandor’s simple, yet embraced rendering of the open ocean both as celestial body and chalice of death, fill the film’s sails with wonderment and purpose. There’s nothing else, and both players are on their game. In each ensuing ‘it can’t get any worse’ (and it does) scenario, you can always see in the corner of Redford’s eye a faint trace of fear. It’s a brilliant touch. Like Sandra Bullock’s astronaut in “Gravity,” his sailor knows, that to give into panic would result in his immediate demise and that calm perfunctory progress is the only way to remain alive and afloat. That struggle plays palpably upon the storied actor’s face without word or unnecessary exposition. In saying nothing it tells us oceans about the man who’s name we don’t even know.

If there’s any short coming to “All is Lost” it comes in the ending, which is neither a closed loop nor satisfactory. Perhaps Chandor was reaching for something more. It’s a bold but hollow grab. No matter, the film still showcases the talents before and at the helm and will only add to Chandor’s nascent reputation as one to watch.
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies