MEEK AT THE MOVIES : A SHARLTO COPLEY TWO=-FER — ELYSIUM ( 2.5 stars) and EUROPA REPORT ( 2 stars )

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^ Sharlto Copley in Elysium, with Jodie Foster and Matt Damon

For blockbuster fans out there, still hungry for a real summer hit to carry you into the fall, I’m sorry to inform you that “Elysium,” Neil Blomkamp’s follow up to “District 9,” isn’t the answer– perhaps about as worthy an answer as was “Pacific Rim.”. What the South African wunderkind, who wowed audiences with his stark, inventive first film (it garnered several Oscar nods, including a Best Picture bid) now has conjured is something that’s less a new, grim re-envisioning of the not so distant future (it’s 2154) than a retooling of the film that made him an A-list name. Unfortunately, the new movie is addled, by everything bloated and boxed up that Hollywood brings to such a project when it gets its hooks deep into an upcoming auteur.

The plot moves like a whiplash. LA is now a wasteland reminiscent of the South African ghettos that the wayward aliens in “District 9” inhabited, while the rich reside on the lush, luxury ring-world (thank you Larry Niven!) of the title that’s just a twenty minute shuttle ride up into the sky. Up there, universal health care is a reality, they have medi-pods that can heal anything — cancer, the clap — and can even rebuild your face should it get shot off : that’s if your brain still works. To get a medi-pod to heal, you must be a barcoded citizen of Elysium, so if you live on Earth, you’re living in the new Third World, and there’s no grand social program to cover your ass.

Forget any type of political deeper meaning as in “Logan’s Run,” or even “Oblivion.” The perfect outer ups and the ugly underneath are just plot garnish, a notch above McGuffin status. Max (Matt Damon), the intrepid hero du jour, is an ex-con with a heart of gold (yes that cliché) who accidentally gets irradiated on the job and, without much remorse from his employer, is given a vial full of pills and five days to live. Most people would roll over or go out with a bang, but not Max. To get up to one of those cure-all tanning beds, all he’s got to do is get a Robocop exo-skeleton welded to his frail body, shoot down a shuttle with an RPG, download the contents of a billionaire’s brain and save the poor. Not so easy, but also not so tough, as the few people we do see up at Elysium are candy-assed effetes, with the exception of Jodie Foster’s icy ministry of defense, a gal who’s, pretty much, an unfortunate blend of Donald Rumsfeld and Tilda Swinton.

The real trouble comes in the form of Kruger (Sharlto Copley, the star of “District 9”) a covert assassin, who, while at the beck and call of the Elysian powers, would just as happily slit their throats. He’s the wild one in an otherwise predictable house of cards. The film looks great, and I hope that the next time Hollywood out Blomkamp, they take the gloves off and let him get to it.

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^ Sharlto Copley in “Europa Report”

It’s tired and clichéd, but “in space no one can hear you scream,” is a cinematic truism–and even if someone could hear you, what could they do? “Alien” defined the maxim and many over the years, for example the macabre, but mediocre “Event Horizon” (1997), have tried to follow Ridey Scott’s trail with little success. “Europa Report” goes into that charted territory, employing a battery of “Blair Witch Project” cams, except they’re not hand held by an imperiled victim-in-waiting, but by various affixed video surveillance equipment in a space craft on a deep space mission to explore a distant moon orbiting Jupiter.

The crew’s a generic, international smorgasbord. They’d all barely be discernable if it weren’t for their various nationalities and race (among them Sharlto Copley, who gets his second space mission this week). Director Sebastián Cordero nicely uses quartered screen imagery to jazz up the action, and on Earth there’s Embeth Davidtz barking out orders and giving background from the confines of mission control. The journey out feels like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and when they get to Europa it turns “Blair Witch”—yeah there’s something out there on that frozen hunk of ice. “Europa” begins promisingly, but sails off an arty, jacked-up version of the “Lost Tapes” faux-documentary TV series that explores modern myth (blood suckers, sea monsters and poltergeists, oh my).

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : Indie DIY – Two Far-flung Visions on the Cheap

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^ young dalliance : Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman

For the second time this summer we find Michael Cera behaving badly in a bathroom. In “This is the End” he was effete and self-centered as he was orally pleasured by two nubile ingénues. Here, in “Crystal Fairy,” as an American in Chile on a quest for the ultimate peyote, his Jamie has some flushing complications after a number two. Normally this would be a conundrum for most, but Jamie happens to be stoned and hanging out with a few of his Chilean hommies, so what’s a little stink among friends?

The head-trip objective runs its narrative arc fairly straight up with a few scatological sprinkles and some moronic lunacy along the way. In most every scene, Jamie’s shrieking hubris consumes the screen, and it doesn’t help he can’t speak Spanish. As far as the project’s origins, you can almost see director Sebastián Silva cooking it up with Cera after coming down from an altered state: “Hey man, all we need is an investor or your Indie famous mug on Kickstarter.” One-time child star Gaby Hoffman checks in as the title character continually at odds with Jamie. She’s a true free-spirit, resoundingly exemplified as she drinks cocktails with the boys in the buff. Jamie, who sees her as an interloper raining on his parade, tells her to cover up, but no one else cares. So goes the movie. She’s tuned in, in touch and can speak the language, he’s just an ugly American. That’s the trip.

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^ Anwar Congo : garrote that man

“The Act of Killing” isn’t a documentary in the conventional sense, not even. Its director, Joshua Oppenheimer has described the film as a “documentary of the imagination,” which is deftly more to the point. What Oppenheimer has done is quite ingenious. The film within a film tautly sheds light on the Indonesian death squads of the ’60s (sanctioned by the nascent government that was passively green-lighted by Western powers) without being a chronicle. Back then, Anwar Congo, who looks slightly like Nelson Mandela, was a petty hood scalping movie tickets until the power shift made him the leader of a militia group that operated with autonomy, little accountability and assumed impunity. He killed thousands, mostly by garrote as he grimly demonstrates for the camera, but Oppenheimer isn’t interested in recreation or testimony, he’s after the soul of a killer and gives Congo a camera to make a movie that encapsulates his legacy.

What Congo comes up with are staged, grand military invasions replete with jeeps, gun turrets mounted, rolling into a jungle village — and surreal nightmare sequences in which he plays the victim. The production values are low, and there is plenty of baroque imagery, like the siren-esque women singing alongside a misty waterfall, the ample overuse of studio blood, and – almost in every sequence — a chubby former executioner in drag. Oppenheimer inter-cuts it starkly with some revelations from Congo and TV footage from back when Congo was revered as a national hero. The journey is amazing, but at some point Oppenheimer becomes too much of a bystander and the wonderment becomes inert. Looming questions never get answered, but you still leave with a pit in your stomach and an itch to google Anwar Congo and the whole bloody chapter on the South Pacific isle.

Crystal Fairy – 2.5 STARS

The Act of Killing – 3 STARS

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : ONLY GOD FORGIVES ( Rating ; 2.5 stars )

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( photo courtesy aceshowbiz.com )
Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling team up for their second bloody go round after finding success and lauds for their 2011 car chase noir “Drive.” The teaming of the pair is a good one, a director with a hyper-stylized eye and a penchant for flourishes of quick bloody violence that would make Sam Peckinpah nod in appreciation; and a laconic actor, enigmatic and bristling, a brooding baby-faced brute if you will, capable of unspeakable savagery.

In “Drive,” the story was rooted in a true anti-hero, who comes to the aid of the hapless family next door. A simple set-up that plyed the darkest recesses of the black and white spectrum. Here though, there’s no true right and just corner, as those who seemingly mete out justice by disemboweling others later prove to be morally ambiguous and as the page turns, perhaps even the face of evil.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with moral ambiguity and grey areas, they can texture a film with piquant provocation and soul searching exploration; but when the motivational catalysts and driving tenets become hollow and arbitrary, the visceral connection that the filmmaker desires to forge with the audience gets lost on a sea of senseless violence.

That’s pretty much what happens here. Gosling’s Julian and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) are expats running a boxing gym in Bangkok, one that’s really a front for a drug trafficking ring run by their brassy mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Right out of the gate, and playing the antithesis to the film’s title, Billy mentions he’s “got a date with the Devil,” runs off and rapes and brutally murders an underage sex worker. The local police chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) in retaliation allows the father of the girl to bludgeon Billy to death, and then cuts off the father’s arm for allowing his daughter to work in the sex trade.

So goes the film; and as Julian is ultimately enlisted by his mother to exact revenge, “Only God Forgives” settles into a blood feud between the transplanted Americans and Chang. Julian too becomes conflicted when he learns of his brother’s atrocity and there is the strange and titillating overture of sexual tension with Mom. Scott Thomas nearly steals every scene she’s in. Some are fine moments of weary female assertion, others skate dangerously close to “Mommy Dearest” camp. Then comes those moments that pop out of left field , such as when she meets Julian’s girlfriend (a dancer in a strip club) and refers to her as a “cum dumpster.”

It doesn’t matter the context, whenever Scott Thomas is onscreen, the film is alive.

Gosling as Julian here feels like a blanched-out version of his cool driver from “Drive.” Pansringarm’s stoic Chang practically floats through the movie — an arcane ghost. Sized up against the bigger, younger and more physically imposing Billy or Julian, Chang remains calm, poised and in command. His sangfroid is an eerie prelude to death and his lethal capabilities include a samurai saber covertly holstered along the spine of his back. When it comes out, someone bleeds in ample spurts.

Refn — who is Danish and made the devilishly taut prison film “Bronson” (that brought him and Thomas Hardy to a world audience’s attention in 2008) — has made films in LA, the UK and Asia and with timeframes that have spanned as far back as the Vikings (“Valhalla Rising”). At the heart of all of Refn’s work is always the embattled male, outside the bounds of the law and pressed up against a wall. His style too — long telescopic shots of red bathed hallways and dark rooms with jagged slashes of light to expose the emotion on the protagonist’s face, as well as his seamless integration of soundtrack, action and mood — has become signature. Still, the one thing that Refn should keep in mind is that no matter how broadly he trots the globe or how richly choreographed his arterial spray is in some underworld abyss, a story and its characters must have heart and soul.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : WORLD WAR Z ( Rating : 2 1/2 stars )

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Zombie apocalypse and anything vampire seems to be the hot ticket out of Hollywood these days. The subtext, that we prey on each other and that life is a precious and fragile thing, is a piquant notion that gets magnified to its fullest when examining how man comports himself as civilization crumbles.
Sans rules and with limited resources, what would you do? Snatch and grab, help out or hole up doomsday prepper style?
That’s the special sauce that makes any apocalypse-cum-horror flick grip the road. Real people, super natural horror, deep shit. George Romero’s seminal “Night of the Living Dead” was more about the dynamics and dissent amongst a band of survivors barricaded in a farm house than it was about the throng of shambling flesh scratching at the walls. Decades later, guys like Danny Boyle (“28 Days Later”) and Zack Snyder (the 2004 remake of Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”) got the nifty idea to make the dead move at warp speed.
Speed kills and given the choice in “Jurassic Park,” who would you really want to face, T-Rex or the veloci-raptors?
“World War Z” does zombie on a grand scale and goes at the genre in new ways, even if the rabies outbreak that is transforming people in to flesh ripping berserkers is similar to the rage virus that fueled the “28 Days Later” series.  You get bitten and in seconds you’re one of them, a maniac on angel dust spreading the disease. The decayed, mangled weak-kneed dead in Romero’s tales and TV’s “The Walking Dead” have nothing on these Olympic athletes.
The outbreak comes suddenly and fast as Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt, who snatched up the rights to Max Brooks’s 2006 book) and his family wallow in a Philadelphia traffic standstill and a wave of the rampaging infected sweep through, shattering windshields with their heads, chomping and biting, and increasing their numbers. It’s a terrifying beginning of the end.
Gerry, it turns out, is a recently retired UN operator who was adept at getting in and out of such hellish hotbeds as Liberia and Bosnia. Those survival skills keep the family alive for a night in a Newark housing project, and to get the family out and onto the safety of a flotilla of military vessels off the coast, Gerry has to agree to get back in the game. Bureaucracy and governments are eroding all around the world, and so Gerry, a SEAL team, and a Harvard educated biologist set out on a viral forensics mission of sorts to find a potential cure. The journey sends them to Korea, Wales and Israel where the Middle East flashpoint of contention has seen this coming and taken all their settlement walls and set them outward-facing.
The globe-hopping plot drops Gerry in one harrowing situation after another– I’m not sure what was more unsettling: the transformation of coach class on an airliner into a neck biting brood or being trapped in a W.H.O. laboratory (a veritable maze) with dormant undead at every turn. The scripts and Pitt play Gerry right, though; he’s not a can-do skull basher, he’s a thinker and a plotter, susceptible, vulnerable and human, more MacGyver than Rambo.
The film — directed by Marc Forster, who’s been all over the map with “Monster’s Ball” and a Bond credit — does an effusive job of rendering the world spanning terror. The scenes of broad carnage–that Philly traffic jam and the scaling of the wall in Israel by a zombie flesh ladder, which must be some type spin on the Tower of Babble — astound in scale, authenticity, and the seamless blend of FX and live action. If the story bogs down, it’s in its disjointedness. Each stop along the way feels like a chapter written by a different author; and that would be correct, as the script credits listed in IMDB require more comas that I care to entertain.
The end also comes (too) quick and rushed (and a bit of a groaner to boot), and there’s not enough screen time for Mireillie Enos of “The Killing,” who plays Pitt’s wife and the mother of their two daughters. The family tie binds the film nicely and Forster and Pitt hold it from going over and into cliché and hyperbole. The result is lithe and agile, and intrinsically eerie enough to keep your stomach pinned to the back of your throat throughout.
—- Tom Meek / “Meek at the Movies”

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : THIS IS THE END (rating : 3 ***)

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“This is the End” may be the most meta-vanity project ever to come out of Hollywood, where things meta usually don’t fly unless Charlie Kaufman is involved. The film co-written and co-directed by Seth Rogen has Rogen playing Seth Rogen — the asshole extrapolation of himself.  James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride all do the same. Baruchel is the one out of towner visiting Rogen in Los Angeles. Baruchel despises LA and just wants to hangout and smoke weed and watch 3D TV, but Rogen pries him off the couch and drags him to a house party at Franco’s manse.
Pot humor and pop up party guests like Rihanna keep the slow moving premise (Baruchel also hates Hill and is a bit of whining wet noodle to boot) alive, though there are nuggets of WTF humor that snap you out of the stupor : for example,  Michael Cera (yup, the anemic sweet wimp from “Juno”) doing blow and getting a rim job in the bathroom while sipping an effete cocktail that he seemingly relishes more than the sex act.
If that’s not an apocalyptic vision, the real apocalypse does arrive. A la the Rapture and Judgment Day, ‘good’ people are sucked up in blue tractor beams; the middlers and miscreants are left on Earth to perish in the building inferno. No one at Franco’s party gets beamed up to say the least, and, as the hills of Hollywood burn, it takes a while before the revelation sets in, and when it does, the sink hole from hell (literally) opens up and takes all but the main lads.
Most everything on view is aflame, and the six performers bunker up in Franco’s art-deco fortress, smoke more weed, divvy up supplies and jockey for masturbation rights to the lone porn mag in the house. McBride, so funny and unshakable in “Pineapple Express,” turns out to be the loose cannon, depleting the supplies in a matter of minutes; and Emma Watson shows up to provide a sexual distraction, not to mention dissension and Potter jokes.
This film, ostensibly birthed by the 2007 short film “Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse,” gets teeth from its self-deprecating nature. When wondering if they’ll be saved, one the insightful lot remarks, “They always save actors and famous people first.” One of the film’s wittier turns has Franco breaking out the video-camera from “127 Hours” and the boys making a cheeky, low-fi sequel to “Pineapple Express.” Things that don’t work so well are the heavily peddled spoof of “The Exorcist.” It’s dull, uninspired flatness will leave your head spinning.
Outside creatures that look like the minions of the Gatekeeper in “Ghostbusters” or some rubber costume baddie in a Scooby Doo episode tear up the turf. Eventually the posse must venture out; and when they do, the scale of special FX won’t wow you so much as make you wonder how such a hokey skit idea stretched into a feature length film got such big dollars.
“This is the End,” won’t get you any deeper into the personas on display or change your perception of them, no matter how you feel about them, but it will make you laugh — and test your patience a bit too.
—- Tom Meek  / “Meek at the Movies”