^ 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.

^ 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 —- Lovelace ( 2.5 STARS )

^ Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace in “Lovelace”

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Well I remember back in college (and no, I was not in college when “Deep Throat” was released in 1972) my dorm neighbor having a poster on his door of an old man with a shit-eating grin on his face and a T shirt saying “I choked Linda Lovelace to death.” At the time — pre-Viagra time — I found the image devilish and perverse, now I find the notion sad, ironic and somewhat misogynistic, sentiments reinforced by the new bio-pic “Lovelace,” which details the infamous porn star’s story from the POV of her controversial 1980 memoir, “Ordeal.”

For those not in the know, Linda Lovelace (born Linda Boreman) was the first adult performer to become a household name and a regular punchline for Johnny Carson and other late night talk show hosts as the free-love ’60s melted into the commercialism of the ’70s. Part of that was because she was simply the star of one of the first adult films with high quality production values and a (ahem) plot—one where Lovelace’s ingénue can’t find her clitoris because it’s in the back of her throat. The film caught fire (it would make 600 million, all Lovelace got was $1,250). Hugh Hefner (played with avuncular smarm by James Franco) was a fan, Lovelace got the red carpet treatment and some even embraced the film as an anthem of female sexual liberation, but behind closes doors, was a different story — one of abuse at the hands of her husband, Chuck Traynor.

As Lovelace, Amanda Seyfried (Les Misérables) smoothly carries off the tricky dichotomy of sex kitten and battered spouse, and not just as a victim or shooting star, but as one caught up and swept away by something momentous and out of her control. Peter Sarsgaard, taking on the thankless role of Traynor, adds some adroit and menacing flourishes, but the role’s a one-note and one of the many minor flaws that addle this film.

Over the years many have doubted Lovelace’s spin, so much so—and it’s depicted in the film—that the publishers made her take a lie detector before printing “Ordeal.” Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman, who collaborated on “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” and “The Celluloid Closet,” play the bio-pic straight up and pedantic, much like they did with “Howl,” though in telling Linda’s story, they piquantly delve into the business side of the industry, which oddly enough, is not as sleazy as you’d think. All the sleaze that there is in the film, is heaped on Traynor who shills out his wife out for quickies and worse. (Traynor, who it seems was addicted to porn stars, would later go onto marry Marilyn Chambers).

Lovelace herself only made a handful of adult movies and later joined with Gloria Steinem to speak out against the porn industry. She never hid from what she did and in that, Epstein and Friedman capture the soul of a woman caught between two extremes and unable to escape her past, yet able to come to terms with it as a mother, wife and daughter (of very conservative parents). It’s an intriguing and touching portrait that owes much to Seyfried. Like Lovelace, who died tragically in a 2002 car accident, she proves she’s more than just a pretty face and capable of so much more.

The eclectic array of pop-up cameos include Chloë Sevigny and Sharon Stone, two women also known for pushing sexual boundaries in film : Stone for her panty-less leg cross in “Basic Instinct” and Sevigny for performing full on fellatio in “Brown Bunny,” the same act that made Lovelace a worldwide sensation.

—– Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

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

^ 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



^ Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in “Fruitvale Station”

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With the George Zimmerman trial and cries of justice for Trayvon fresh in our minds, “Fruitvale Station” could not come at a more appropriate time. It won’t ease the current emotional swell, but it will help further the conversation.

At 2 AM on New Year’s Day, 2009, Oscar Grant, a twenty two year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a transit cop as he lay face down and partially restrained on the platform of the subway stop of the title; a tragic end to a buoyant and hopeful evening as Grant and his friends tried to make their way back to Oakland from a sojourn across the Bay to see the fireworks.

Much of the inexplicable act was caught on cellphone video. The cop later said he meant to draw his Taser and was sentenced for manslaughter, but that’s not what drives this movie. The shooting may be what ultimately defines it; still, Ryan Coogler’s explorative lens is more concerned with the odyssey of a young man struggling to go right in a world stacked against him—a world that he had a hand in skewing, and yes, it’s about race too.
Coogler begins with some of that fateful cellphone video. Then he fades out and rewinds to earlier in the day, following the events that lead up to the tragic moment, in the process absorbing the essence of the person Oscar Grant. “Fruitvale,” while it uses a smattering of real footage, isn’t a documentary per se but a dramatic recreation. Smart casting employs Michael B. Jordan to breathe soul into the memory of Oscar with Academy Award nominee Octavia Spencer as the loving, but stern mother.

Jordan, whom you might recognize from TV’s “The Wire,” has a long sad face with sleepy kind eyes; a bit like our old Celtic hero, Paul Pierce. For most of the film the camera hangs tight on that mug as Oscar drives around in his car or lingers in his kitchen, wondering, contemplating, torn and wanting to do the right thing. What confronts Oscar is his past — also his present situation. He’s just surrendered his run-around girlfriend and committed to Sophina (Melonie Diaz), with whom he has a young daughter; but then there’s the revelation that Oscar’s somewhat recently out of jail and he’s just lost his job as a butcher for being tardy too often. He desires to succeed in a straight up fashion and doesn’t want to go back to dealing dope, but how to make ends meet? It doesn’t help either that he keeps Sophina and his mother in the dark about his recently changed employment status.

“Fruitvale” bears the tag of “based on true events,” but Coogler, who was a USC film student at the time the project began (Forest Whitaker is one of the producers) and is approximately the same age as Grant and Black as well, never takes liberties with the license afforded him. If there’s any heavy-handedness it’s the rather contrived Black and White interaction : for example, the white-bread blonde who’s initially apprehensive when Oscar approaches her in a hoodie in a supermarket offering her tips on “fish fry” (she later happens to be on the train that night when the altercation goes down that triggers the unnecessary shooting). There’s the racist inmate who, during visiting hours between Oscar and his mother, drops a few F-bomb and N-word couplings and worse—moments that feel forced and unnatural, though they ultimately help fill the bigger canvas.

The true power of “Fruitvale” permeated through its quiet, reflective moments, as introspective players grapple with their own failures and with the outside influences that have negatively impacted their lives. John Singleton applied the same nuanced approach to “Boyz n the Hood.” Not bad company (and a fellow Trojan as well). The concluding frames of “Fruitvale,” as Oscar’s family and friends cling to slim hope, wrench the conscience. Loss of life is universal, no matter what color you are. Coogler knows this and articulates the moment with profound affect.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



^ Hugh Jackman as The Wolverine in film of same name

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The Wolverine onscreen always was the more intriguing of the X-Men lot. As an enigmatic outsider with a tortured past and tacit persona, he had character and depth, something few of the skimpily sketched circus anomalies in Dr. Xavier’s menagerie could offer. If you draped a poncho across his back and put a six shooter in his hand he’d not be unlike a young Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s ‘Man with No Name’ trilogy. And now that I come to think of it, the man who plays Logan, (a.k.a the Wolverine), Hugh Jackman, and Eastwood, if of a similar age, look and sound somewhat alike. I’m not sure if their politics or tastes in furniture are akin, but that’s beside the point.

Given the “cool” factor, it’s no surprise that the immortal mutant with a metal reinforced skeleton and rapier sharp retractable blades in his wrists got his own franchise. The first installment, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” didn’t exactly wow, but back-story, up til “last we left off,” tends to do that. Here we find ourselves in time after the last X-Men chapter (“X-Men: The Last Stand”); Logan is living (and looking) like a vagrant in the Yukon and depressed about the death of his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, who continually comes to him in dream sequences). He’s got a grizzly bear as neighbor; but before we get to all that, there’s the important rewind back to Nagasaki during World War II when Logan saves one of his captors from “the bomb.” That benefactor went on to become a wealthy industrialist and now, on his death bed, would like Logan to pay him one final visit.

What’s the best way to get the Wolverine to come see you ? Send a school girl with ninja capabilities and a sea full of sass. And that’s exactly what happens. No one, and it’s all grizzled men in the near-arctic township, seems to take exception to the pixie-ish Yukio (Rila Fukushima), lithe and red mopped with popping cheekbones, until, in a seedy bar, she unsheathes her samurai sword and lets them all know she’s no cute plaything. That’s enough to get Logan to Tokyo, where Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) has ulterior plans for the feral mutant. In the simmering kettle of arcane machinations, there’s a plot afoot to assassinate Yashida’s daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto); his oncologist (Svetlana Khodchenkova) freakishly looks like a Victoria Secret model ; and there’s always some guy running along the rooftops with a bow and arrow in hand.

Yes there are other mutants in the game. Yukio, it seems (and fuzzily so) has the power to foresee, and there’s the Viper, who has a nasty tongue and then some. But mostly this is a lovers-perhaps-to-be on-the-run movie, as Logan and Mariko take flight to the now tranquil harbor of Nagasaki. Double dealings come at them from all sides and to make things interesting, Logan loses half of his powers.

James Mangold, who has done everything from “Walk the Line” to “Copland” and “Knight and Day,” smartly delves deep into the human element. Jackman’s given more to work with since the last busy outing (loss and love) and the two women, while sleek and elegant eye candy, harbor both vulnerable and intrepid pistons behind their reserved exterior. Mangold, going back to “Heavy,” has always had an eye for full bodied female characters; and while Khodchenkova’s bedside floozy is razor thin, the sisterly pair are complex and compelling. But this is a summer movie, and a blockbuster franchise at that, so there must be the crash-crash, bang-bang — and plenty of that comes and sometimes confusingly so. Logan’s final challenge inside a Yashida corporate stronghold is noisy, long and predictable, but thankfully after that, there is a quieter, more revealing moment. One that reveal and charms. To be continued, I’m sure.

— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



If you’ve seen Sam Peckinpah’s masterfully macabre “Straw Dogs” (let’s all please agree to forget the far inferior recent remake) then you’re already up to speed on what happens in “The Hunt” : quiet European hamlet; a mindful and reserved intellect with a complex past; slow constant simmer; sexual tension; strong reactions based on false assumptions; and a gentlemanly hunt in the woods serving as a ruse for a deeper more perverse game at hand.

Though the arc, ambiance and elements of the two films bear many acute similarities, the context and articulation could not be further apart. Mads Mikkelsen — whom most US viewers know as Hannibal in the self-titled NBC TV series, or as the European bad-ass who bashed in Bond’s balls in “Casino Royale” — plays Lucas, a quiet man trying to gain some degree of custody of his teen son in the aftermath of a bitter divorce. As a caregiver/instructor at a nursery school, he’s pretty well liked and respected by his peers and his charges — by some, perhaps a little too much. Tow-headed Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) takes his kindness for something more and, after a failed furtive kiss, which Lucas quickly and sternly rebuffs, she becomes angry and tells her parents (who happen to be Lucas’s best friends) and the school head, in vague terms, that Lucas did something to her. Then later, after Klara catches a glimpse of smut on her brother’s iPad and the adults try to further educe from her what exactly transpired, it only takes a few dark slanted inferences for the toxic charge of pedophilia to erupt.

The film directed by Dane Thomas Vinterberg (“The Celebration”), a Dogme 95 compatriot of Lars con Trier, leverages its remote Danish townlet setting where justice is administered by elected elders and enforcement, when needed, comes from somewhere afar, so as the rumor billows and emotions flare. There’s a heated call for immediate action–one that will not wait for outside mitigation– as slices of vigilante retribution begin to rain on the accused. Lucas’s son stands by him, as does his new girlfriend, an immigrant cafeteria worker who’s fearful of losing her job and being deported; but in the end Lucas must stand alone against the amassing throng, and boldly so, not unlike Dustin Hoffman’s nebbish in Peckinpah’s bloody classic.

The niggling to “The Hunt” can’t be put onto Mikkelsen or any of the actors, who are sharp and heartfelt in their roles. Mikkelsen’s rendering of internal turmoil, malaise and depressed entrapment, dutifully echoed by the grim, washed-out primal atmosphere etched by Vinterberg, drives the film with purpose. Still, the logic and the obvious questions not asked by normally rational minds both undermine the overall effort. The premise of a town turned inward by accusation and mob justice is a piquant one, it’s just too bad Vinterberg didn’t bring a more spirited dog to the fight.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



( photo courtesy )
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



With Guillermo del Toro’s 3-D visual artistry and the care he’s imbued into every frame of this spectacular homage to the Japanese rubber-suit movies of the ’60s and ‘70s – not to mention a ready and salivating fan-boy base – “Pacific Rim” is a $185 million monster mayhem royale that has a fighting chance of winning at the box office and in the hearts of moviegoers.

Del Toro has always been an intricate craftsman. The signs were evident in his quirky first outing, “Cronos” and best showcased in his Spanish Civil War-era films “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone.” His ventures into larger, more mainstream projects such as “Mimic” never took flight or, like “Hellboy” and its sequel, never forged an audience the way less articulate hero fare such as “The Avengers” have – truly the audience’s loss. This time, though, the Mexican-born auteur with a penchant for horror and sci-fi seems eager to show prospective converts that he belongs, and he takes his shot in a very big way.

The film begins in the not too distant future as our planet is besieged by giant dinosaur-like blob-sters known as kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast”) who plod, stomp and destroy cities with all the aimless glee that Godzilla and Mothra employed in the destruction of Tokyo. After taking down the first few kaiju with conventional military weapons and high human casualties, a world-uniting program is launched to build massive robots called Jaegers (German for hunters) to battle the beasties in densely settled locales. The benefit of such archaic iron-fist-to-claw combat would seem to be minimizing human toll; but the real and more important matter at hand is the requisite setup for del Toro’s brilliantly choreographed go-bot vs. monster death matches.

There’s a lot behind the premise, such as that the kaiju come from a fissure in the middle of the Pacific — and this is not their first go-round — it’s “Invasion 2.0,” so to speak. The beings driving the kaiju tried this stuff before — millions of year ago with the dinosaurs. Their goal? World domination and all our valuable resources – you know, the kind of thing that drove “Man of Steel,” the aliens in “War of the Worlds” and to a less but far darker extent, the machines in the “Terminator” and “Matrix” series. All these themes of exploitation and genocide, incidentally, point right back at us (looking in the mirror can be ugly) and if it’s not that, it’s that man’s polluting and abusing the environment — or our need for nuclear proliferation — has boomeranged; thus unleashing the transmogrified behemoth sitting on the doorstep : see “Godzilla” or “The Host” (the fantastic Korean import, not the more recent nonsense helmed by the once promising Andrew Niccol).

The Jaegers, which look like Hancock-tower-sized “Iron Man” suits, are driven by pilots tucked away in the skull cavity who mime walking and fighting actions much the same as one does with a Wii; except these pilots wear suits that tap into their neurological systems and forge a “drift” with their co-pilots and machine. It’s pretty much the same kind of neural net mumbo-jumbo that drove “Avatar,” but here, more personal information (memories and secrets) gets sprayed into the virtual cloud, with perverse ramifications.

The tighter the drift, the better capability a Jaeger has to kick kaiju ass, so inanities such as “Drift levels near 100 percent” often spill out of the control center. Word to the wise: If you take that type of high-science/low-logic too seriously, del Toro’s delicately woven spell will be broken. Don’t think, just drift. And if you are able to float, what a drift it can be (best enjoyed in IMAX) when the kaiju and Jaeger meet midsea, in shallow port or Asian cityscape for a titanic smackdown.

There’s a smattering of people who matter too : the downtrodden former pilot trying to get back in a Jaeger after his brother was killed by a kaiju (Charlie Hunnam), the stoic commander hiding a terminal condition (Idris Elba, who anchors the film soulfully) and the over-achieving tactician who wants her shot in action (Rinko Kikuchi, so effective in “Babel” but striking an odd chemistry with Hunnam here). The simple yet overly convoluted plot has the Jaeger program on the verge of obsolescence as the kaiju have become too powerful and mankind has opted to build a “wall of life” to stave off extinction. “World War Z” already illustrated the grim futility of such isolationism.

Comparisons to the “Transformers” series are unavoidable and unfortunate, as Michael Bay’s metal-bashing series was/is driven by glitz, brawn and breasts; whereas del Toro’s vision is of a romantic human saga fueled by connection, choice and idealism. The script — by del Toro himself, with Travis Beacham — sprinkles some well-timed comedy into the action, mostly in the form of Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as bookish science officers. Bright ideas they have, including the forging of a mind meld with a kaiju — later in the film they venture into the black-market for kaiju organs, where they encounter del Toro regular Ron Perlman as a Yakuza don peddling kaiju poop and livers.

“Pacific Rim” runs hard and fast, but as with any sustained crash-bang contest, fatigue is a factor. The dance of CGI metal and rubber is poetic wonderment and seamless, and the characters and story too have breath and life, but at the end of del Toro’s apocalyptic brush, there’s little that resonates beyond the big bashes at sea.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



“The Way, Way Back” is the kind of summer comedy that throws enough curve balls at you to make what’s old, new again. A tad dark around the edges and sophomoric in the middle, it’s a sweetly affecting coming of age drama with flourishes of Wes Anderson and even the Farrelly brothers: which should be as no surprise, as it’s co-written and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the pair, who along with (director) Alexander Payne, received an Oscar for penning the effectively droll George Clooney comedy, “The Descendants.”

The surprise here is Steve Carell who plays against his usual big screen persona as a feckless nice guy and is more like his irritable jerkwater boss on the NBC’s hit series “The Office.” His Trent, a middle-aged divorcee, decides to bring his new girlfriend Pam (Toni Collette) down to his summer house on the shore of some idyllic and fictional Massachusetts beach town. In tow are Trent’s diva daughter (Zoe Levin) and Pam’s introverted son, Duncan (Liam James).  “The Brady Bunch” this is not.

From the onset, Pam feels out of place among all of Trent’s boozing beach buddies, and Duncan wanders about an eternal outcast, though he harbors an adoring eye for the slightly sassy girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) who he feels is out of his league because she pals around with his prospective stepsister. As the pat vacation has it, Pam cooks, Trent invites his gang over and they all drink until they pass out. On top of all that Trent has a wandering eye and a penchant for belittling Duncan. In short, the adults are the ones behaving badly while away.

Sick of the indulgent malaise, Duncan covertly takes up a job at the Water Wizz amusement park, where the other half (townies and the cheap seat vacationers) roll in to find their slice of summer Eden. The whacky park manger (Sam Rockwell) fills in as an unconventional but effective older brother figure and instills Duncan with the necessary self-esteem to approach Susanna (Robb).

The awkward intermingling of Susanna and Duncan is palpable, and moving enough, as they try to find a connection and navigate their youthful angst — which is continually exacerbated by their parents’ dysfunctions and need for alcohol. Pam’s dilemma too, as a lonely single mother looking for her chapter two, also affects. Collette, always on her mark,  gives a subtle but nuanced performance in the fairly thankless role and her two younger stars, Robb and James, also shine (and their work here should bear greater fruit down the line, especially for Robb, who’s a gifted young actress imbued with a splash of Lolita).

If there’s any shortcoming to the film, it’s that the two first-time directors try to do too much. You can almost imagine their excited ardor during their bull sessions while penning the script; but, when it came time to shoot they just didn’t have the discerning eye of an impartial third party to help shape, hone and cut. Ultimately the film settles on Duncan and his quest to find himself and some solace during the summer from Hell, yet it is also about Pam and her desires, and the arrogant Trent and his freewheeling beach crowd and their antithesis over at the Water Wizz — which has its own set of zany characters (Maya Rudolp, Faxon and Rash in bit parts). And that’s not even mentioning Trent’s perennial partners in crime Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet) who have truckloads of baggage and closets full of skeletons and Betty next door (Alison Janney, who pretty much walks off with every scene she’s in), Susana’s mom and a widow, who wakes up making margaritas before breakfast and ridicules the heinousness of her son’s lazy eye openly in public. It’s just too busy, and the rompish silliness over at the Water Wizz sometimes feels like a stilted vignette from the woeful “Grown Ups,” which also was shot in Massachusetts and has a sequel coming out later this summer.

“The Way, Way Back,” which refers to the rear facing seat of Trent’s classic station wagon, has big ambition, lots of heart and a tricky knee.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



Zach Snyder’s always been big on bluster and pizazz but a bit lacking when it comes to the essentials of storytelling. Take “300” or “Sucker Punch,” which made for titillating trailers set to edgy, esoteric rock (Nine Inch Nails’ “Just as you Imagined” layered on clips of the Spartans battling Xerxes in “300” may be the greatest music video/movie trailer of all time); but when it came to holding an audience’s attention for 90 minutes, only fanboys and cultists who dug Gerard Butler’s CGI-enhanced abs and righteous barking, or Babydoll and her bustier-wearing ilk beating down misogynistic ogres, could go the distance – because that was all there was: alluring visuals and sound bites, sans the bite.

One major early steppingstone was his 2004 remake of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” which featured an eclectic cast (Ving Rhames and Sarah Polley) and zombies that could run at full tilt. Danny Boyle had done that bit before and better with “28 Days Later …” and there’s really no one who can out-shamble Romero  in the walking dead genre — which he pretty much invented. Yet sure enough, in the maddening, flesh-ripping mayhem, Snyder carved out his niche as a hyperactive visual stylist.

Anyone who saw “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” an animated adaptation of a children’s serial, would have to admit it was a surprising and pleasing departure from what one might expect of Snyder. And then there was “The Watchmen,” which certainly ranks as the most well done but widely disregarded superhero flick of the new century. It was Snyder’s moment to find that delicate and articulate balance between character development and special FX razzle-dazzle.

But on to “Man of Steel.” Snyder inherited script by Christopher Nolan (director of “Memento” and “The Dark Knight”) and David S. Goyer (writer of the “Dark Knight” series), and the special FX (which you can experience in 3-D to boot) are top shelf. Sometimes too much of a good thing can overwhelm the senses – imagine being trapped in an elevator that a bottle of richly redolent perfume had recently spilled in.

The narrative cuts neatly into three chapters spanning time and universes. We begin on the planet Krypton, where Jor-El (Russell Crowe, doing better than Marlon Brando in the 1978 version) is father to the first naturally conceived child in decades – a taboo, because newborns are harvested from a “Matrix”-like aquarium and their destiny (warrior, scientist, bureaucrat, laborer, etc.) is genetically predefined. The science and reasoning on that don’t make much sense, nor that Krypton, for all its future-tech machinery and spaceships, is about to implode because Kryptonians have exhausted the planet. (No forecasting, no way off ?) In such final moments, General Zod (Michael Shannon), a character you might remember happily from “Superman II,” launches a coup to save the race. Even though the planet is crumbling, when he is thwarted, the Kryptonian government follows its bureaucratic habits and gives Zod his due process : which is to send him off to a deep-space prison.

I’m not sure why they’re not headed for the distant stars themselves, but at least Jor-El encapsulates his natural-born son and sends him off to Earth.

The second act does not take up with the baby being found in the cornfield by the Kents; that’s all told smartly in flashback vignettes, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner giving wonderful, full-bodied performances as the adopted parents. Instead, we catch up with Clark (a buff and apt Henry Cavill) as a young man working McJobs on a fishing boat, as a bar back and so on. Occasionally he’ll save someone and mysteriously disappear. One of these side jobs lands him on an icecap as a civilian aiding a military operation to find out what’s trapped under the ice. Perky  (and somewhat annoyingly snoopy) Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is there too, and, as it turns out, what’s under the ice is the ship Jor-El sent to Earth long ago (again that forecasting thing). Most importantly, a father-to-son message in hologram — and that essential blue lycra suit and red cape.

Now we’re cooking, and you’d half expect Gene Hackman or Kevin Spacey to drop in as Lex Luthor, but Nolan and Goyer’s script is darker than that. Before Superman can do too many good deeds, Zod shows up (it seems that prison was a safe haven) on a colonial mission of sort. He wants to rekindle the race of Kryptonians and to do so has brought along a “world forming” machine that will basically rebuild Earth to suit the new race and wipe out humans in the process. It’s here we learn that the Kryptonians had an imperialistic yen and a history of re-forming other planets for their own (which all somehow perished when Krypton did). The implication is that they’ve been practitioners of genocide and genetic engineering, but let’s not digress into politics, morality or a self-ward reflecting mirror.

The end game is a ballistic spectacle with Zod and his underlings and Superman beating each other through buildings and gas stations. Skyscrapers fall, F-15s get punched out of the sky and things blow up in grand fashion. But it goes on too long.

What’s missing in Snyder’s Superman is a dash of the hokey goodness that Christopher Reeve contributed to the role and the comic cold cheesiness that Gene Hackman and Terrence Stamp brought as Luthor and Zod in the ’70s and ’80s.

In all this, the mention of Bryan Singer’s 2006 “Superman Returns” feels lost, so much so in that it feels redundant with Snyder’s vision. Will this one catch fire, where the other one didn’t? Time is the judge, but I think people no longer care – or the newer versions know how to wow, but not woo.

The Reeves series set up Clark Kent as a man with flaws; Cavill looks and feels the part, but he’s so brooding, impregnable and dark there’s not much joy in the affair. A dark hero, yes, but into all darkness must shine some lightness. And logic.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies