MEEK AT THE MOVIES : SHORT TERM 12 ( 3 stars )

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^ 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

MEEK AT THE MOVIES — YOU’RE NEXT ( 3 stars )

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^ 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

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 : THE WOLVERINE ( 2.5 STARS )

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^ 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

MEEK AT THE MOVIES —- The Hunt (2.5 STARS)

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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

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”

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : “AFTER EARTH” FAILS THE TEST — 1 STAR

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Sure, I like Will Smith. I do. Still, I can’t say I am liking his choice of films as of late. Sure, the upcoming “Winter Tale” has a ton of fire power to it, but purportedly, Mr. Smith turned down the role of Django because he felt the role wasn’t a lead. Then there’s that rumored remake of “The Wild Bunch” that has the Peckinpah faithful hearing fingernails on the chalkboard. Now comes this ill-advised project with M. Night Shyamalan, who’s made exactly one quality film, a few intriguing follow ups and done a disastrous slide ever since.
If you’re wondering why the actor, who holds an obvious penchant for sci-fi, would jump into water with a man on his last breath, the answer is likely “his son.” “After Earth” is not a Will Smith movie but a Jaden Smith movie. The young thespian held his own with Dad in the underrated and wholly affecting, pull-yourself-up drama, “The Pursuit of Happyness” and was effective in “The Karate Kid” reboot; but this film ? It’s  Jaden’s coming out party, a big screen bar mitzvah for Papa Smith to declare to the world, “My son is an actor.”
Well not so fast Will.
Jump ahead one thousand years. Man no longer lives on Earth but some far away planet where the bane of his existence is a beast called the Ursa. Sounds like a bear, but it’s a giant hell-bender salamander with pincers and an “Alien” appetite for humans. They’re blind, but can easily pick off peeps because of fear pheromones. Will and Jaden fittingly play father and son. Dad is Cypher Raige — highly regarded Zen general who has all the stoicism and success of Phil Jackson while junior checks in as Kitai, a cadet in dad’s army.
The pair along with a legion of military personnel set off on a training mission aboard a ship carrying a cocooned Ursa in its hold. Why is scantily explained, but then again not much makes sense 1K years into the future. They have warp drive space ships but fight with double bladed pole arms that retract crisply like a light saber — yet they wield no cool semi-automatics or laser blasters? Or how about the man who lost a leg in a battle with an Ursa and is confined to a wheelchair–no bionics or even a blade runner?
Such questions abound throughout and become increasingly aggravated by the stiff direction, hokey futuristic sets, inert dialogue and equally unimpressive acting. Yes, Will too.
In any case, after a meteor storm, the ship crashes and Cypher and Kitai are the only two who survive–well the Ursa too. Cypher’s legs are broken, so he must sit in the fuselage while Kitai treks four days to get to a critical communication module that landed a hundred clicks away as the ship broke apart on entry.
Oh yeah, the planet they landed on is Earth. It’s not really explained why, but we no longer live on Earth, it’s become a bit of a hell hole even though it looks lush, verdant and inviting. Somehow, somewhere along the line Mother Nature got angry (for us mucking up the scenery and souring the seas?) and kicked our ass, mutating giant eagles and swarms of ravenous man sized baboons; and the temperature sways between tropical and sub-freezing each day, even though the flowers bloom and the buffalo roam as if it’s a stable climate. As Cypher says, “every life form has evolved to kill man.” Say what? You can build a spaceship with a nuclear fusion drive, but you can’t take out a troop of oversized baboons?
There’s also the weird notion that man can only sort of breathe on the new Earth. I won’t even go into it, but the bulk of the film is Cypher sitting in a chair–a burnt out game console if you will–shouting commands into the earpiece (well actually, a wrist-piece but you get the idea) of his charge as he evades the local fauna and the Ursa.
Never have I seen Will Smith so stiff and inarticulate, and I wonder now, if all that early praise for Jaden was premature. And, for such a high powered concept, I was amazed at the degree of fluctuation in FX which ranged from brilliantly seamless to a gooey slathering of Cheese-Wiz.
In the wake of such wreckage, who knows if Shyamalan will ever make a feature again? I hope he gets a chance at redemption. as for Will, he’ll be fine. He’s been here before with “The Wild West” and proven to be bulletproof. Then there’s Jaden. He’ll get another shot and he should use it wisely.  He’s got an in, and Will shouldn’t push too hard. I appreciate the parenting instinct, I truly do, but don’t give into nepotism or the egotistical desire for legacy. You’re making bad picks for yourself Will, don’t do your son the same disservice.
—- Tom Meek