MEEK AT THE MOVIES — The Fifth Estate ( 2.5 STARS )

^ no soul to sell ; Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange (with Daniel Bruhl) in Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate”

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WikiLeaks, the renegade news outlet that takes hacked secrets from government agencies and publishes them to the world sans redaction while protecting the identity of the whistle blower through an elaborate ‘submission platform,’ that’s so secure, even the publisher doesn’t know the identity of the leaker. That site’s notoriety achieved its apex when it published reports exposing US intelligence assets abroad and crass snippy inter-office memos from those in the State Department trashing world leaders. But that’s just the background and part of the denouement in “The Fifth Estate” which is really more a character study of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his meteoric rise to international infamy.

Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch (Khan in the last “Star Trek” chapter) who in long white locks and with piercing blue eyes looks somewhat ethereal or other worldly, like the fair-haired elves in the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the calmly maniacal Julian Sands in the “Warlock” films. Cumberbatch’s Assange is a hard beast to wrap your hands around. He’s guff, arrogant, but at the same time an idealist who spends time in Africa trying to expose corrupt governments stealing money from the people and killing anyone who questions their brutish entitlements. The film’s window of insight into Assange’s mystifying persona is his early collaborator Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl who played Niki Lauda in “Rush”), who at first idolizes Assange and his mission but later has clashing ideological differences over what to do with the Pentagon papers Bradley Manning leaked to them (it was Manning who exposed himself in a chat room).

The film is directed by Bill Condon, who had notable successes with “Dream Girls” and “Gods and Monsters,” and recently has been involved in the hackneyed “Twilight” series. Condon keeps things clicking along with Twitter-brisk editing and plenty of acerbic Assange diatribes. He makes sitting at a desk and hacking away against the clock a time bomb-beating experience. As far as composition goes, the film looks great, but there’s not much insight into Assange’s past. His stories of his white hair and his long unseen son (near adulthood) seem arcane and piquant at first, but then they feel like ploys used by Assange to manipulate others. And that’s the fatal fault with “Fifth Estate.” Assange is an asshole and you can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance. The well-heeled documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney earlier this year came out with “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” which got at Assange and the WikiLeaks story more satisfactorily. What Condon was aiming for is unclear. It postures well and Cumberbatch is riveting as the media shaping reptile, but in all the plumbing of the journalistic ethic and mad dash globe hoping, there’s just no soul to sell.

— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : We Are What We Are ( 2.5 STARS )


^ generations of cannibals in your backyard ; Bill sage as Papa Parker in “We Are What we Are”

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Human consumption (as in flesh of, not spending habits) onscreen isn’t so disturbing when it’s a vampire or a werewolf gnawing on your fellow being as an hors d’oeuvre, but bring that in a little tighter, where man’s dining on man for sustenance and it becomes down right creepy. Even the understandable plight of the “Alive” survivors who chomped on frozen stiffs to keep themselves going in the high Andes, educes a shudder; and there’s still reports of ritual cannibalism among remote tribes in Borneo, but what if it was next door, and not something perverse and of a sick mind like Jeffery Dahmer, but a long standing family tradition executed in the name of God?

Meet the Parker family. They feel like lost cast members from “Little House on the Prairie,” yet live in the modern suburban remotes of upstate New York. Mom (Kassie Depaiva) handles everything culinary, from the ritualistic harvesting to the careful trimming and lengthy rendering process, which results in a savory stew, but right off the bat, mom has a seizure in the middle of a flash storm, vomits up heaves of blood, and is gone. Her grisly duties then fall to her daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), though after the death, father (Bill Sage) declares a period of abstinence, which allows for the macabre outer sheen of the film to ebb and the edgy backstory of how the Parkers came to their generations old practice, to fill the strange now as the girls struggle to come of age (a time of sexual awakening for Iris) and dad goes through maniacal mood swings and Parkinson-like fits.

The film directed by Jim Mickle, who amused with the quirky vampire hunter saga “Stake Land,” is fairly loyal remake of the 2010 Mexican film of the same title. That cult staple was set in the impoverished barrios of Mexico City and Mickle’s relocation to the drab Catskills brings home the grim affect with greater visceral resonance. He also leverages hurricane season (the 2011 storm Irene was upon the area when he shot the film) as a cleaver plot device as the rising waters from the ongoing storms begin to unearth and expose the bones of the Parkers’ past feasts.

Little of the barbaric practice makes it onto the screen for much of the film, but the traces are ever there; be it the missing person reminders that pop up in conversation or an information flash (reminiscent of “Prisoners”), the muffled whines that come from the Parkers’ root cellar or the inquisitive coroner (Michael Parks) who starts putting together the pieces–literally.

If the plausibility of that sounds a bit hard to swallow, Sage does an effusive job of making the sell as the righteous propagator and controller. Childers too lends credibility as a young woman torn between wanting love and a normal life and familial obligation to her aggrieved father and siblings. It’s her burgeoning courtship with the bashful deputy (Wyatt Russell) and the coroner’s personal need for answers that become the catalyst for the hellish denouement that will not sit well with the squeamish.

In the mix too is Kelly McGillis, barely recognizable as the frumpish next door neighbor who shows Parker’s young son (Frank Gore) compassion, administering bedside TLC and remedies to the boy bedridden with shakes and a fever. She thinks it’s a just common cold from the bluster and rain outside, but it’s hunger from the abstinence–a point that’s driven home and sets off a light in her head when the anemic seeming towhead suddenly chomps down on her thumb with frenzied lust.

For an indie cult-horror film, “We Are What We Are” succeeds modestly much in the same way “You’re Next” did. It transcends the genre’s trappings and makes the most of its humble resources with confident craftsmanship and nuanced subtly that embosses character and demonstrates care. It’s not going to re-script the genre by any stretch, but for those who have the yen, it is a sating bowl of gruesome gruel.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : Captain Phillips ( 2.5 STARS )

^ Tom Hanks as pirated cargo captain in Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips”

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Back in 2009 the whole world watched rapt as an American cargo ship was seized by pirates off the coast of Africa. To save his crew, the captain offered himself up as hostage and was subsequently cordoned off in a lifeboat pod with a posse of armed and anxious pirates looking for a multi-million dollar ransom. Eventually the US Navy and SEAL Team 6 got involved and brought about a quick resolution. It made for great drama then and would seem a natural fit for film, but though harrowing, “Captain Philips” never quite gets below the surface of the whole ordeal.

All of this might come as a bit of a surprise because “Phillips” is directed by Paul Greengrass, who adroitly chronicled the intrepid doings of the doomed 9/11 passengers in “United 93.” His poignant insight and meticulous care for every passenger’s story and plight rang through cleanly and affected with a genuine earnestness. Here that acumen feels lost or at best, severely muted.

“Phillips” begins rather no-nonsense with the captain (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) driving to the airport and bantering about how their children are growing up in a harsh world where being righteous and diligent isn’t enough anymore (perhaps an omen of what’s to come?). Shortly after, Phillips and his crew load up food aid for Africa in the Arabian Peninsula and do a once over of the Maersk Alabama. Phillips is working with a new crew that aren’t quite up to his standards and neither is the ship, which ominously has unsecured ‘pirate gates.’

As a result of such shabbiness, once underway around the Horn of Africa, Phillips insists on drills, but just as he sounds the alarm, two speeding skiffs packed with armed men come at the enormous cargo carrier. The Somali pirates fail in their first strike, but have a trailing mother ship to refuel at, and are back nipping at the Alabama the next day.

Three things drive these men on the high seas, money, mind games and stimulants. The pirates, who can speak English, imposter the Somali Coast Guard, while Phillips, knowing they are listening in, pretends to call in an air strike and later, after the Alabama is boarded, lies about the operational condition of the ship. The Somalis, gaunt, angry and hard to tell apart, all gnaw on a narcotic stimulant known as khat and when offered thirty thousand dollars to just be gone, they laugh and whimsically mention that their last take was six million dollars, to which Phillips asks, “Then why are you doing this?” It’s a good question that unfortunately never gets adequately addressed.

Phillips’s men too, see the whole situation as a transaction and don’t want to take on the task of repelling the pirates (they use a series of high power water cannons) because they’re not getting paid enough and ultimately end up hiding in the hold while Phillips deals with the armed intruders.

There are some intriguing bits of chicanery deployed by Phillips and his crew to stem the pirates, but eventually Phillips ends up in the survival capsule with the armed men and the US Navy on their tail, and that’s where the film breaks down — or goes on too long. It becomes an endless loop of the pirates debating whether to kill Phillips and the Navy eternally searching for the right seam to let loose its mighty hammer. One thing is given : the US will not allow the Somalis to take Phillips ashore alive.

The film based on Phillip’s memoir, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” has recently come under fire by crew members who claim it’s a gross fictionalization of what really happened. Complaints, too, have come from the company which allegedly sent the Alabama through pirate infested waters as short cut to save on fuel costs.

The recent Danish film “A Hijacking” also covered a similar real-life arc with great palp and soul by burrowing into the lives and motivations of those in peril as well as their captors. Here Greengrass (who registered much respect with his guttural Bourne films) wows with gorgeous oceanic vastness and crisp, taut editing, and Hanks, on his game, conjures up a thespian tempest; yet without the charts and logs to deepen the now, the full force effort labors as much under the weight of its shallow effusiveness.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies


^ George Clooney and Sandra Bullock about to launch into the void in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity”

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Some might wonder how the director of “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Great Expectations” (bet you forgot about that 1998 foray starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke) arrived at a space odyssey such as this. Likely, the international success of “Y Tu Mamá También” opened a few doors for director Alfonso Cuarón. Thus his follow on, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which was the best segment of the overheated wizard series, enabled the Latin auteur to play freely with special FX and blockbuster-aimed gadgetry. Two films later he capitalized on that and wowed critics and audiences alike with the bleak future-scape thriller, “The Children of Men,” registering perhaps, the first perfect fusion of grand vision and epic scale in the new world order of digital film making.

What goes on in “Gravity” is pretty straight up: three astronauts from the space shuttle Explorer go out on a spacewalk to repair the Hubble telescope, disaster strikes and the rest of the film is about the survivors trying to get to a safe place. The catastrophe, a debris storm from a Russian missile strike that took out a derelict satellite, comes shortly after the films begins. Jocular banter and the mission at hand are replaced with an urgency to get into the shuttle and out of harm’s way, but they waiver for a moment and then it’s too late. Everyone inside the shuttle dies from exposure while one of the three out in space has his helmet and cranium pierced by a shard of shrapnel that passes through with the ease of a hot knife through room temperature butter, leaving only newbie science officer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and grizzled vet Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) alive and adrift in space. They’re apart from each other and the now destroyed shuttle, and the prospects for going on look quite dim. It’s a harrowing moment of realization, like becoming lost in a desert or alone in a raft at sea with no land in sight (that story forthcoming in “All is Lost”)—and space is an even more vast and more unfriendly expanse of nothingness. Throughout all this, Kowalski remains exceptionally calm and in the eerie silence of space, using old school navigation techniques, limited communication devices and a lot of luck, he finds Stone, who’s been hurtling around out-of-control, and tethers her to his back (Kowalski is the only one with a jet pack) and they set off to make their way to the International Space Station hoping their jet fuel and oxygen don’t run out first.

There’s more to the plot of “Gravity” (the International Space Station is a whole ‘nother chapter of epic tribulation), but to articulate any further would be to do the film and the experience a disservice. How Cuarón so seamlessly created zero gravity and rendered astronauts spinning out of control at thousands of miles-per-hour with such realistic credibility, boggles the mind. The feast of visual spectacular wows—each one, outdoing the last–drives the film as much as the hanging-by-a-thread survival yarn.

And if being lost in space without a ship seems like a pretty major problem, the tethered pair have also lost contact with Earth, which I guess cuts out any expository banter and insight from down below–and what exactly would those guys be able to do in any case?

Astoundingly, the voice of Houston control is none other than Ed Harris, who played the effusive and resourceful control manager in Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.” That movie, based on a historical occurrence that was eerily foretold by the 1969 movie “Marooned,” dealt with the rescue of oxygen starved astronauts in space. There, the players on earth and the celestial above, had soul and their lives unfurled with as certain sensitive fragility and death loomed at every turn. In “Gravity” the two survivors overcome such insurmountable odds so many times, you wonder if James Bond might not be a tad bit jealous. We get a sip of back story too. Clooney is his comfortable wry everyman while Bullock’s Stone has a bit more going on, but it feels like artifice so Cuarón can do such mesmerizing stunts as have a camera follow Stone as she careers aimlessly about. From afar we watch her spin, in the back ground we can see Earth, then the deep dark galaxy, then the broken carcass of the shuttle, and it all repeats over and over as the focus slowly moves in on Stone’s face and then we are in her helmet and looking out, and we see the whole dizzy spin cycle from her POV. It’s an amazing feat of film making, but where Cuarón should have applied similar elbow grease was on the script he co-wrote with his son, Jonás. Sure, the characters have the mettle to be up there and their cool perseverance under pressure is beyond enviable, but what else?

What Cuarón missed that Howard nailed in “Apollo 13” (where we already know the conclusion) was the connection between humans doing something heroic that puts themselves at risk for others. There’s some of that altruistic spirit in “Gravity” too, but just a sparse sprinkling.

So if in space you do something monumental and no one is there to witness or benefit from it, does it matter? Probably not, but even if you view “Gravity” as a vacuous fire drill, witnessing that harrowing hollow hell-ride is one breathtaking endeavor.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies


^ “a good driver but a legendary fuck” ; Daniel Bruhl as Niki lauda in Ron Howard’s RUSH

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Ron Howard has set his directorial career all over the map. Early on he made a spate of serviceable comedies (“Night Shift” and “Splash”) and took dips into the fantastical (“Cocoon” and “Willow”) before entering a very serious stage that saw “Backdraft,” “The Paper” and “Ransom.” During that stretch Howard also delivered his crowning achievement, “Apollo 13” (it’s a far more competent and complete work than “A Beautiful Mind,” which garnered a slew of Oscars) as well as the ill-conceived reality TV satire, “edtv.” Along the way, too, Howard unsatisfactorily attempted a cinematic adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s “The Grinch who Stole Christmas” and later ventured into Dan Brown territory, directing the lackluster “Da Vinci Code” films. More recently, the man who had once been Opie of Mayberry appeared more than ready for the directorial graveyard after laying the clucking Vince Vaughn and Kevin James dud, “The Dilemma.” But like the hero of his 2005 boxing drama “Cinderella Man,” Howard has come off the ropes with “Rush.” To sit through the real-life Formula 1 speedway drama, one might think they were viewing the work of an emerging auteur just hitting stride with a first big studio budget behind them.

It’s easily one of Howard’s two or three best films, and the subject matter, while held in check by history and fact, zips along supercharged by the immaculate production, detailed craftsmanship and dead on performances. The men of subject, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, better known as Thor) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), are Formula 1 deities of the early 70s back when household names like Mario Andretti and James Stewart were just getting off their training wheels. Both men were born sons of big European money and both were spurned by their families when they opted to go into something so lowbrow as auto-racing—but that’s where the similarities begin and end. Hunt, a hedonistic Brit off the track and an unbridled force guided by instinct and gut on it, has a need for speed and a flirtation with death. His appetite and personality present bigger than life and fill the screen over the roar of the engines. To put it all in perspective, one fellow racer advises Lauda, who is about to go on a date with the racetrack manager’s ex-wife (because she had an affair in the back of an ambulance with Hunt as her husband stood feet away unknowing), of the act he’s following and adds, “He’s a good driver, but a legendary fuck.”

Lauda, a tacit German who speaks too bluntly for his own good, earned his way up as technician, retooling cars and making them faster by retrofitting them. He and Hunt initially tangle in the lower Formula 3 ranks and re-ignite their rivalry on the bigger stage when Lauda is driving for Ferrari and Hunt is wasting away a foppish British Lord’s largesse and having champagne in the pits. For three years the two vie to be best driver in the world. Lauda, the calculated practitioner, achieves the seat twice but at all times, Hunt is right there ready to take it from him, until the 1976 season, when Hunt leads a coalition against Lauda — who wanted to have a race in the rain on a tricky course aborted, and Lauda, on a tricky hairpin, ends up in a wreck and trapped in a fire that burns him at over 800 degrees for more than a minute.
“Rush” smartly does not let the races become epic events. They’re terse. They make their point. In their own way, they’re mini wonders of film making, brilliantly staged, shot and choreographed. The montage, like the drivers, is efficient and minimal (no extra weight or pomp, just muscle and skill) and the stellar sound editing puts you right there on the track and nearly makes you wish for a pair of ear plugs as the cars rev up and vroom around the track. I’m not sure if I’ve ever walked out of a film and said this should win an Oscar for sound editing, but this is surely one.

The drivers are given soul by the women in their lives and by how they value each other. Hunt goes through women like grease rags, though he does marry the super model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), who in a fit of frustration leaves him for Richard Burton, and Lauda marries a woman (Alexandra Maria Lara) whom he meets at a party he can’t fit in at (because he’s socially inept and would rather be reworking his car in a garage). It’s one of the film’s best scenes when her car breaks down in the Italian countryside and she tries to get a car to pull over for a ride by showing some leg, but the car that eventually does pull over, pulls over for Lauda because it’s full of three racing enthusiasts who consider it an honor to let Lauda drive their car. To that point she had no idea who he was, and after that, it’s love at first swerve.

While “Rush” is a brilliant sparkle, and perhaps relief to Howard, it’s really Hemsworth and Brühl and the chemistry between the two actors that make the film go. With another set of players and a different driver behind the wheel, this might have been a flabby bio-pic without any punch and pull. But something magical has rolled out of the hangar; all cylinders fire in unison. Given the road map, there was little room for error. Howard and the boys punch it home with gusto.
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

MEEK AT THE MOVIES —- Don Jon (3 stars)


^ the lady killer and his ‘eleven” — Joseph Gordon-Leavitt courts Scarlett Johansen in “Don Jon”

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So you’re a lady killer and you’ve got abs and a workout routine that challenge The Situation (not to mention a bit of his Jersey gym rat accent too), so why live the life of a chronic masturbator when you can have any babe in the house? A good question and pretty much the rub of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s plucky rom-com, where he not only tackles the role of the buff Jersey boy of the title but also makes his feature debut as both writer and director.

The film’s intrepid protagonist is so tagged Don Jon (a play on his first name, Jon coupled with that of the notorious lover, Don Juan) by his boyz because he always scores, though in private his ideal sex partner is ten minutes of internet porn and a tissue. Even after landing a nine (on a ten scale), it’s not untypical for Jon to slip out of bed as the conquest du jour snoozes and fire up the laptop for a quick porno boosted topping off.

Sex addict, porn addict? “Don Jon” is not so concerned with that as with Jon’s journey from meandering man-boy into manhood. That transition gets a strong directional pull one night; while out prowling the clubs, Jon lays eyes on the comely Barbara (Scarlett Johansen giving her best and most sex bomb performance to date). She’s an arguable eleven (that ten scale again!) who’s interested in Jon, but won’t let him bed her without a proper and long courtship, and she adroitly knows how to keep him on the hook without letting him in for a night cap. Barbara’s also a life planner and isn’t so thrilled by Jon’s dead end job in an electronics store or his lack of education; so, to even get in the game, Jon’s got to sign up for night classes and take Barbara to meet his parents. These ultimately prove to be loaded and fateful propositions.

Much in the film carries the tang of stereotype and cliché (think “Jersey Shore”), but as it washes over you and takes hold, you realize there’s much more going on than a couple of greasers looking for hit-and-runs. It’s about letting go, finding yourself and connecting; a sly subversive charm that Gordon-Levitt has (through skill or beginner’s luck) infused into the script. Barbara’s gum smacking challenges and demands piquantly put Jon on edge; and, as director, writer and actor, Gordon-Levitt isn’t afraid to deprecate himself or let the other players take center. Jon’s outshone by nearly every other character in the film. Barbara’s a strong cup of tea with her blunt bimbo-esque garble and clingy sweater dresses. Then there’s an overly tanned and toned Tony Dana and Glenne Headly serving up devilish fun (and archetypal puns) as Jon’s working class parents, while Julianne Moore adds a soft, human touch as a troubled older woman in one of Jon’s night classes. Their relationship moves in surprising and affecting ways that educes the reluctant heart in the brash braggadocio.

As Gordon-Levitt builds the film with emotional layers that take root with earnestness, there’s always a jab of good humor in nearly every scene, even if it’s a quick cutaway to Jon’s mounting mass of wadded-up tissue balls in the ubiquitous wired mesh trash can next to the laptop. The compendium of comedy also gets boosted by Jeremy Luke and Rob Brown as Jon’s posse and Greek chorus; Brie Larson adds tartness as Jon’s adolescent sister; she’s a constant reminder of teen angst and boredom as she sits at the dinner table, tacit and unengaged even during bursts of raised voice hysteria, which is common place at Jon’s parents’ house.

In its sweet quirkiness “Don Jon” plays out like a Woody Allen comedy from the other side of the tracks with sharp sophomoric wit stepping in for highbrow satire. It’s an impressive outing for Gordon-Levitt as a nascent filmmaker even if the film doesn’t have a satisfactory “happy ending.”

— Tom Meek / meek at the Movies

MEEK AT THE MOVIES —- Thanks for Sharing ( 2.5 STARS )


^ six coins in a fountain ? maybe THAT’s what we hear in “Thanks for Sharing.”

Sex addiction is a strange and fascinating matter. It’s also something that’s hard to comprehend and even harder to have sympathy for, because after all, what are we talking about, someone who’s compulsively after the fruit of life? That’s like trying to feel bad for someone who eats too much sushi or chocolate mousse. No matter, the line between indulgence and addiction is a fine one, and while Stuart Blumberg’s “Thanks for Sharing” doesn’t quite get between the sheets of the matter, it does delve into the lives of three recovering addicts.

Tall and rangy Mike (Tim Robbins) runs a New York based support group like a big Papa Bear — stern, avuncular and always quick with an answer. He may be the warmest practitioner of touch love. Mike’s addiction, while a bit vague, is more substance-based than sexual in nature; but he’s been clean for some time and seems to have a solid home life with his dutiful wife (a radiant Joely Richardson) who has obviously been through the wars (probably not to the same degree as Anthony Wiener’s spouse, Huma Abedin, but still) and opted to stand by her man. Then there’s his trusted lieutenant Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a successful international financier with a primo high-rise condo in Manhattan ; he’s five years sober, and because sex is so easy to come by, goes to painful extremes to truncate alone time with the TV and internet. The good news is that Adam has met the perfect woman in Phoebe (a very toned Gwyneth Paltrow), though he’s reticent to tell her about his bug (sex is permissible, just not compulsive sex). Adam’s also taken on a reticence to tell her about his bug (sex is permissible, just not compulsive sex). He has also taken on a new charge who’s a discombobulated mess. Recently terminated from his medical post in a hospital for sexually harassing a co-worker, Neil (Josh Gad) subsequently rubs up against a woman in the subway and as a result of that offense gets mandated to the group.

As gross as that sounds, Neil’s a pretty affable guy and perhaps the most anchored of the lot. After ‘sharing’ he forges an immediate and awkward alliance with Dede (Alecia Moore, aka Pink, who is excellent in her first real dramatic role) who does more for Neil’s progress than Adam. Adam and Mike, it turns out, are not quite the pillars of Gibraltar initially reported. Mike’s son (Patrick Fujit), who was both a victim and refugee of Mike’s down years, returns to the nest suddenly; past pains quickly percolate to the surface. Over in Adam’s killer view of the big city, Phoebe’s called on her eating and exercise disorders and can’t figure out how to digest Adam’s confession of sexual compulsion.

Such revelations become triggers and how they go off and integrate together in the bigger picture doesn’t quite mesh. Blumberg, who as a story teller garnered an Academy Award nod for penning “The Kids are All Right,” seems a bit hesitant behind the camera in his directorial debut. Situations erupt out of nowhere, and since we’re in varying stages of ‘recovery,’ without a genuine taste of the descent into addiction hell, the “now” feels more like artifice than sincere soul-baring. The Neil and Dede thread yields the greatest rewards, perhaps because we catch Neil just as he’s fallen, coupled with the reality that he’s not a lean, chiseled alpha male, but more a slovenly Jack Black or John Candy type. Dede’s efforts to get him out of his shell and pig sty apartment ring with bona fide compassion. For two big personas, the pair have many quiet, small moments tinged with sexual tension. How Blumberg uses that and the actors is a true charm and maybe the story he should have built the film around. The other A-list actors are fine, it’s just that their characters lack depth, especially Ruffalo’s Adam. He’s a weepy version of Michael Fassbender’s shark-like sexaholic in “Shame,” a film that dove into the nastiness of sex compulsion and put the audience on edge. Here we’re told the stories of depravity in group. Hearing is not seeing.

— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



^ Brie Larson as Grace, in Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12”

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Not so long ago, for about two or three years, I taught creative writing to girls and young women who were wards of the state at the Germaine Lawrence School in Arlington, MA. These women had lived hard lives, drug addiction, rape, multiple pregnancies by the age of sixteen and abuse. A friend of mine who worked at the school and knew that I wrote, had grants and was looking for artists to help the girls shape their stories and find their inner voice. I was apprehensive at first, but agreed to do so and found it one of the most rewarding, eye-opening experiences of my life. I’m certain the girls did more for me than I did for them, but there would be times when a girl would not show up for class, and when I would ask why, I was routinely told it was because they had gone ‘on the run’ and was likely using or worse. There were also times when one would have a fit during our sessions and need to be restrained by the ready staff members in the room. It was violent and shocking to me, but overall, these women were raw, sweet and tough yet highly vulnerable. Fragile fierceness is what I called it.

I tell you all this because, in watching Destin Cretton’s consuming “Short Term 12,” a character study about the youth in a temporary home for troubled teens and the adults who run it, I kept having flash-backs to my time at Germiane Lawrence—deeply emotional, affecting ones. Cretton, who’s a young and promising director, actually worked in such a home; he gets the experience down right, and viscerally too, even if you were never aware such places existed or what they are like.

The sweet barb to the film is that two of the young adults who work at the facility (Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.) used to be in such a home themselves. The pair, Mason and Grace, are also in an uneasy relationship; yet on the job, they’re composed and in charge. So much so, that it seems as if much, after being in such a home, must have changed and gone right for them. Then, soon enough, we get glimpses into their not-too-distant pasts–mostly Grace’s–and the reality is not very pretty.

Not only do they have their own demons to contend with, but those of the kids; and they possess insight beyond any graduate degree hanging on a wall. In one telling scene Grace tells the resident therapist that one girl is being/has been abused by her father, because ‘she knows.’ Going by the book the therapist disregards what he considers conjecture and the ramifications are profound.

Much of the film grows like that — small moments laced with tension and consequence. Larson brings a gritty intensity to Grace; we see her full-bodied and real. She’s a survivor and a care giver. Both she and Mason do their jobs clinically, but underneath it all you can feel their emotional turmoil raging. That’s not to say the movie is a downer. There are many small quiet victories, but nothing overwrought, and it’s intriguing to watch how the adolescents at the home play off each other. As for the care givers, for you as viewer the film becomes more than just a job. You start to care for these kids, root for them, hope for a better day for them.

It’s a spellbinding realism that Cretton tapped into. I can’t imagine there’s a human being out there that can’t be moved in some way by “Short Term 12.” If enough people get out and see it, the film, even Cretton and Larson, may be hearing their names called in January.

—- Tom Meek / Here and Sphere



^ Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall in James Crowley’s “Closed Circuit”

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A deft thinking man’s thriller from the team of producers behind “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy.” Clearly, they know intrigue, though “Closed Circuit” is less of a brain boggle than the 2011 Cold War chess game based on the John Le Clair novel. It’s never a street brawl either, though plenty of blood is spilt (but mostly off screen). Based on real events, London is rocked by a massive terrorist attack that kills over 100 innocents. The means of mayhem is nothing special: a truck full of explosives is parked in front of an open market and triggered suicide style. What is special, is that the mastermind is so easily caught.

The rub comes during the staging of the trial. The Crown, for security reasons, wants a closed hearing due to sensitive ‘secret evidence’ that could put the public safety at risk–or so that’s the line being towed by the Attorney General, played by a slimmed down James Broadbent as an avuncular and creepy puppet master. As the trial gears up, a nosey defense attorney (James Lowe) commits suicide by jumping from a tall building. His replacements don’t buy the unhappy gay story circulating in the rumor mill and begin to poke around too, but they have other challenges to contend with : Martin (Eric Bana) and Claudia (Rebecca Hall) have been romantically involved. It wrecked his marriage, and if a trace of their involvement is evident, they will be booted from the trial. To complicate matters further, the two can’t communicate during the closed session segment of the trial, and only Claudia, as the Special Advocate with classified clearance, can look at the secret evidence.

It sounds more convoluted on paper than it does on screen. Director James Crowley (“Boy A”), artfully imbues tension and peril into every scene. When Claudia is presented the secret evidence by Nazrul (Riz Ahmed), a boyish agent with dangerously dark features, she questions how he got into her sealed office. He calmly tells her the door was open when he got there, but she knows that’s not true, and from that moment on, both she and Martin know that MI5 is likely involved and that a cover up or conspiracy could be in play.

Bana and Hall play off each other well, effusively selling the integrity of their government attorneys as well as their contemplative introspect and resolve when on the lam. You’re so ingrained to their thinking and plight, there are times, especially with Bana’s Martin, that you begin to question whether he’s gone over the top and his acumen has slipped a gear and fallen into pure paranoia. As with the Bourne films, there’s constant surveillance everywhere (Crowley uses the security cam POV a lot and its one many layered meanings within the film’s title), and the busy streets forever provide a mecca for unassuming pedestrians and loiterers to leap out as would-be assassins.

Much to Crowley’s credit, he handles the many twists and turns sharply and clearly even as the film clicks along, agile and spritely under the menacing pall. The editing is tightc– and key, as are the bit players like Broadbent — and Ahmed, who with artful ease sells both sides of his loyal foot soldier willing to do anything to protect the Crown. Also quite good is Anne-Marie Duff as a transportation secretary; not so Julia Stiles, though, in the flimsy role of a New York Times reporter working the London desk. She further underscores the Bourne-like essence, though “Closed Circuit” stands up on its own and rightfully so.

Crowley has toiled at his craft for some time in relative obscurity; “Closed Circuit” is about to change all that. Let’s just hope Hollywood doesn’t change him.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



^ animal-faced marauders in Adam Wingard’s “You’re Next.”

A bunch of well-to-do yuppies head off to a remote manse for a family reunion of sorts. Dad’s recently retired and made millions as the head of marketing for a defense contractor (isn’t the market the government?). The renovation of the aging structure is supposed to be his golden years’ project, but things in the woods aren’t so idyllic. His eldest sons, the uber-yup (Joe Swanberg, whose upcoming directorial effort, “Drinking Buddies,” is an indie must-see) and the doughy academic (AJ Bowen), continuously, and ideologically, get at each other’s throats. Along too are the younger sister and brother, and all have wives or SOs ; mostly, however, they don’t matter, as they’re all primarily fodder for a group of animal-masked marauders who mysteriously show up and pick apart the family one by one, starting with the opening salvo of crossbow bolts. Cellphones naturally don’t work (though the reason why is solid) and each swing of a creaky door yields either a booby trap, knife wielding psychopath or false alarm gasp from the audience.

As boilerplate as the plot is, the sense of dread and the motive why drive the film. The production values are low and the acting flat with the exception of Swanberg and Sharni Vinson as the prof’s demurring tag-along who grew up in a survivalist compound in Australia. She’s a can-doer and the wrench that puts a grind in the killers’ grand scheme. The script by Simon Barrett (the cult-horror collaborative “V/H/S”) offers some dark and funny barbs, both at the dinner table as siblings feud over trite matters and at the moments of macabre demise. The direction too by Adam Wingard (another “V/H/S” alum along with Swanberg) is competent and boosts some adroit twist, but as with most slasher fare, there are plenty of WTF moments.

“Next” isn’t on par with the original 1972 “The Last House on the Left,” which is still the gold standard in home-invasion thrill-kill rides. Still, it’s a cut above most. Sometimes DIY love on the low trumps a studio hack, especially when it’s a film about hacks.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies