Movie Review ~ Mama

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Annabel and Lucas are faced with the challenge of raising his young nieces that were left alone in the forest for 5 years…. but how alone were they?

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nellsse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  When it comes to horror films, I find that I’m pretty forgiving.  I’ll sidle up to a cheesy direct to video scare flick and happily pass the chainsaw-lovin’ night away just as easily as I’ll plunk down my money for the latest sequel to whatever is the current popular horror trend.  All I ask is that the people behind the scares have their hearts in the right place and can provide a few decent spook-outs along the way. 

With Mama, the latest production from Spanish filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, what we have is a strong creepshow that bursts out of the gate early on and maintains a strong hold over its audience for about 2/3 of its 100 minutes.  It’s the final third that threatens to squander the good will that director Andy Muschietti has built up but thankfully even that doesn’t become a deal breaker.

What I’ve come to appreciate about del Toro’s productions (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) is a commanding sense of atmosphere that trumps trivial plot developments.  Even more than that, Spanish horror films in general seem less interested in producing franchise funding killers than it does about providing its audience a entertaining and chilling ride (see Julia’s Eyes, Tesis, The Uninvited Guest).   

The brother and sister team of Andy and Barbara Muschietti first came to the attention of del Toro when their short film of Mama was released in 2008.  Less than three minutes long, the short managed to elicit a more solid scare than countless Hollywood films.  Check it out here to see what I mean.  The concept intrigued del Toro enough to come on board as producer of a feature length version…and this 2013 film is the result.

Even with a relatively small budget, the film looks incredible with fine attention to detail and strong cinematography by Antonio Riestra.  There’s a tendency for these kinds of horror films to use dark corners as easy scares but there seems to be a pointed effort to avoid such trappings.  On several occasions you think a character is going to venture into a spot we know they shouldn’t…only to be the wiser person like we hope they would be.   

Muschietti expands on his short film with engaging characters and strong performances from a game cast.  Even though I knew the lead was played by Chastain (who scored a nice coup recently by having Mama open at #1 at the box office followed by her Oscar nominated work in Zero Dark Thirty taking the #2 spot) the actress is virtually unrecognizable with her famous flame locks tucked under a black mop of a haircut.  The actress also physically transforms herself into something quite different than we’ve seen her do before.  She’s an intelligent heroine for most of the film and believably freaked out when scary things start to occur when the nieces of her boyfriend (Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones and Headhunters) turn up after living in the woods for five years. 

The girls are played remarkably by two young actresses that get pushed to the brink both physically and emotionally.  I sometimes bristle at child actors who wear their craft on their sleeve but both Charpentier and Nellsse are chameleons…huge assets to the success of the film.  Supporting players Kash and Moffat are slight oddities but there’s something sorta old school about the way they sink their teeth into their roles.

When the scares begin (and they begin early) they are achieved via fairly simple methods that don’t always come with the aid of a large music jolt or random cat thrown into frame.  What the Muschietti’s instead create are terrors springing from things slightly off screen or that come into focus at the right moment.  More than a few times the camera lingers just long enough on a slow burn scare to send a chill down your spine.

The problem with the film is that the more that the secret behind the ghostly apparition Mama is uncovered, the less involving the film becomes.  I say involving because it’s not for lack of interest that the final twenty minutes sputters…it’s just that the filmmakers seemingly reached their max of creativity and settle for standard conventions to get the characters where they need to be for an admittedly unconventional (but welcome) ending. 

Those final twenty minutes should not deter you from visiting Mama in the theater, though.  It’s a handsomely made, well assembled horror that isn’t dumbed down for maximum consumption by the masses.  With a boatload of spine-tingles to be had it’s a strong scare fest that just misses the mark by a few feet.

Movie Review ~ The Last Stand

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The leader of a drug cartel busts out of a courthouse and speeds to the Mexican border, where the only thing in his path is a sheriff and his inexperienced staff.

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Luis Guzmán, Eduardo Noriega, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford, Genesis Rodriguez, Daniel Henney, John Patrick Amedori

Director: Kim Jee-Woon

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  He’s back.  I mean, he always said he’d be back…right?  After exercising his political muscles as Governor of California and appearing in a few cameo roles (like The Expendables 2) Schwarzenegger is back headlining another shoot ‘em up actioner that’s heavy on ammunition but light on any semblance of subtlety.  Ok, I’m sure you wouldn’t be lining up to see a Schwarzenegger flick that’s described as subtle but is it too much to ask for a film of this ilk to play to the strengths of its star?

Though it’s constructed and filmed with its head firmly planted in 80’s action flicks, The Last Stand seems to forget that these films were fun at heart so it sacrifices some great camp opportunities in favor of letting its cast shamefully overact amidst dizzying gun battles and laughable moments of misguided exposition.  It’s probably not a good thing if you come away from a film saying that Schwarzenegger was the best actor of the bunch…or am I wrong?

Schwarzenegger heads the cast as a sheriff of a small border town going head to head with minions of a drug lord (Noriega, Tesis) that have descended into town to clear the way for their boss to continue his escape from federal agents into Mexico.  The premise sounds like a perfect fit for Schwarzenegger and to a large extent the actor glides easily with the material.  The problem is that the soggy script from Andrew Knauer, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and George Nolfi feels like it has been around for over a decade and it’s gathered a lot of dust.  I keep considering that maybe it was a pet project for Schwarzenegger before he took office.

Respected Korean director Kim Jee-Woon (I Saw the Devil) is making his US debut with the film and I can only liken it to when Hong Kong’s equally well-regarded John Woo made his first picture stateside, the misfire Jean Claude Van-Damme vehicle Hard Target.  It’s clear the director has style and good instincts but he seems restricted here and never guides the picture to achieve a balance between all of the elements it introduces. 

That goes double for a largely forgettable cast that’s all over the map.  Whitaker looks totally lost in it all…until the movie forgets that he’s a top billed actor and jettisons his character for the latter half of the film.  Knoxville continues to play arrested development imbeciles all the way to the bank and his pajama wearing, gun-loving doofus is anything but the comedic relief it’s intended to be.  As the right hand man to the kingpin, Stormare once again goes for the gold in the crazy meter and achieves liftoff early on.  Alexander, Gilford, Guzman, and Santoro are Schwarzenegger’s allies but any attempt to make them dynamic characters is a failure. 

That leaves us with Schwarzenegger to make the picture tolerable and he almost makes it work.  With some guffaw-inducing scenes where he looks positively crazy thanks to his nutso hairstyle, the movie begins to buckle under the weight of so much wasted energy.  At a baffling 107 minutes the movie could use a 15 minute trim, tightening up the action scenes and losing needless detours involving Schwarzenegger’s past.

Though there are a few clever methods used to dispatch the endless array of bad guys, The Last Stand is sadly not the comeback picture that I’m sure Schwarzenegger intended it to be — it’s embarrassing box office performance assures that no sequel will be considered.  Schwarzenegger already has several other projects in the works so let’s chalk this one up to the star dipping his toes back in the pool he helped fill throughout the 80’s and 90’s.

Movie Review ~ Side Effects

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety concerning her husband’s upcoming release from prison

Stars: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Lately, the side effects of a Steven Soderbergh film are usually indifference so it doesn’t come as a huge shock that Side Effects follows suit.  In 2012 Oscar winning director Soderbergh released two vastly different pictures.  The first was January’s Haywire, an action showcase for its star Gina Carano and I wound up liking it more than I probably should have.  The second film was the wildly popular and wholly awful Magic Mike (it made my worst of the year list) which may have set tongues a-waggin but left me a-gaggin.  Entering 2013, Soderbergh has delivered another peculiar puff of a movie featuring A-list stars in an agonizingly ordinary script.

Familiarity is the name of the game here with Soderbergh re-teaming with his Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for this iffy thriller with a plot ripped from any number of Law and Order episodes.  Contagion was an interesting film that played well in the moment but disintegrated if you really sat down and thought about it.  With Side Effects, no thinking is required.  There’s nothing original here so your enjoyment of the movie is entirely dependent on how much you like the stars that pass through the glossy world filmed (under his usual pseudonym Peter Andrews) by Soderbergh himself.

Though Tatum receives high billing, he’s more of a supporting player in the story of a psychiatrist (Law) put through the wringer by one of his patients (Mara) as she deals with a depression that remerges when her husband (Tatum) is released from prison after serving time for insider trading.  Yes friends, right off the bat we’re supposed to buy that Tatum is playing a character savvy enough to be a financial crook while living in a luxurious mansion in Greenwich.  Don’t get me wrong, Tatum is a better actor than we all first believed but a high level business executive?  I don’t think so. 

Mara employs the same wild eyed chilly detachment which made her Oscar nominated turn as the title character in 2012’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo so successful.  Here, though, that same approach comes off as sleepy…maybe it’s the fact that her eyebrows have grown back.  Though she has an interesting take on the character, she can’t really get to where she needs to be when the film requires it so she winds up as someone running after a train that’s taken off without her.

Ten years ago, Law may have played Tatum’s character but he’s an engaging centerpiece to the trivial plot twists the film employs.  Law plays his role pretty close to the chest for the first hour or so until he must give way to the script and hop in line with his heretofore ethical character suddenly changing his tune.  He’s married to a woman (Shaw, Hocus Pocus) that’s about as loyal as the day is long and soon he’s left to fend for himself against some increasingly unbelievable situations.

The best scenes are probably the scant few between Law and Zeta-Jones (Rock of Ages) as a previous therapist of Mara’s character.  The two actors crackle together and Zeta-Jones especially lets every dippy piece of dialogue coo out of her mouth with pleasure.  I especially liked a brief moment outside of a restaurant when Zeta-Jones goes after Law with unusual rage…it’s the most real moment in the whole picture that’s beneath the talents of all involved.

If I’m being deliberately cagey about what kind of film Side Effects breaks down into it’s because even though the plot is beyond also-ran it still is entertaining in a strange way.  It’s pretty much the perfect length and doesn’t overstay its welcome too much, although you may be tempted to glance at your watch occasionally.  Soderbergh and co. keep things zipping along at a nice jaunt so even though you can see the finish line halfway through the race, you still are involved enough to stick with it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Lone Ranger – Trailer #2

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Synopsis: Native American spirit warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

Release Date:  July 3, 2013

Thoughts:  The first trailer for summer’s would-be blockbuster The Lone Ranger kept its cards close to its chest, revealing just enough to let audiences know that Johnny Depp was falling down another rabbit hole of chameleon acting as Tonto, the trusty sidekick of the titular character (Armie Hammer).  The second preview is more of the same with some added plot details and a few more impressive effects shots.  For the most part, I enjoyed Depp’s previous collaboration with director Gore Verbinski (Rango, the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies) but westerns have traditionally been a tough sell for modern audiences.  If anyone can breathe some life into the old genre, it’s the dynamic duo of Depp and Verbinski.  Count me in as ‘highly interested.”