Friday, November 22, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013) Review


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Thor: The Dark World

At this point the Marvel train is moving full speed ahead and is not likely to stop anytime soon. “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” certified that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is here to stay, and now it is up to the other Avengers to keep the ball rolling. Luckily, “Thor: The Dark World,” while nothing Earth-shattering, is up to the task against the rising expectations of this ambitious series.

The ever-branching story picks up right after “The Avengers” with Loki being imprisoned for his actions, and then jumps to some time later. Back on Earth, Jane and Darcy discover a mysterious substance in London called the Aether that latches onto Jane. The reemergence of the Aether after thousands of years awakens the Dark Elves in deep space, who wish to control the Aether for regaining power over all the worlds. Thor, whose grandfather once defeated the elves in their attempts long ago, senses Jane is trouble and returns to her aid, although he may need help from an unlikely ally in this struggle.

Of all the Avengers characters, Thor is certainly the toughest to digest even after “The Lord of the Rings” brought greater popularity to the fantasy genre. Marvel and director Alan Taylor (carrying over his “Game of Thrones” experience) realize this by emphasizing the spirited adventure over potentially plodding melodramatics. Humor is in high supply here, and many of the most memorable scenes are the funny bits, particularly when one familiar character makes a surprise appearance.

Not so surprising is the highlight of the Thor/Loki brother relationship. As charismatically gruff as Chris Hemsworth is as the title character, Tom Hiddleston has arguably eclipsed him at this point as the mischievous sibling. One almost wants to root for Loki to win instead. Natalie Portman gets more to do this time as Jane too; not only is her chemistry with Hemsworth more refined but Jane even plays an important role in the inventively cool, portal hopping climax.

A big dent in this movies armor is the villain Malekith played by the wasted Christopher Eccleston. Malekith defies being labeled as a character and functions more as a plot device driving things forward, so much so that even calling him one-dimensional feels generous. Imaginative costumes and production design on the Elf front can only go so far. If it weren’t for the high energy and fun infused into the battle scenes they would fall flat from the paper-thin villainy.

Other small issues arise like plot contrivances and holes wondering how this connects to that. Mileage for Kat Dennings will vary for many (though I generally found her funnier and more useful here than in the first “Thor”), and the same goes for the final scene. It is to the credit of “The Dark World” that it works so well in spite of these holdbacks. It proves that a little gusto and a deftly light touch can go a long way in smoothing over rough edges.

3/4

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013) Review


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Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

It may sound weird for many people to admit, but the “Jackass” movies (and television show) were some of the funniest of this generation. Who cared how juvenile the humor was when we were laughing our heads off. They were the only comedies that would allow us to not feel guilty for laughing at human punishment and general poor taste. And just when we thought the crew led by Johnny Knoxville had let it all out of their system with “Jackass 3” (for me the pinnacle of their work), the “Jackass” series comes back for one last gasp with the spinoff movie, “Bad Grandpa.”

Knoxville’s famous grandpa character Irving Zisman is the focal point here, eschewing the usual collection-of-gags format for a “Borat”-style mix of narrative and public reactions. It is not too much of a far cry from the series’ roots, as some of the funniest material came from the looks of shock from unsuspecting civilians. For this sort of humor, the angrier and more disturbed the better.

However this also exposes the not-so-surprising revelation that Knoxville and usual “Jackass” director Jeff Tremaine are better at prank tactics than actual writing. The loose story, as it were, concerns Irving’s wife dying and his daughter dumping his grandson Billy on him at an inopportune time. The story is told through a road trip framework of sorts, and as with many of these movies it’s about these two people who don’t understand each other well eventually learning to appreciate one another.

The blend between the two film styles is off-balance since we are often left wanting and waiting for the next gag to play out in public. The fictional parts between Irving and Billy have their sweet moments, which make Billy’s participation in the gags even funnier, though it often feels like filler since the written jokes and banter don’t hit as hard as the public button pushing.

Some familiar stunts are repeated here to great effect, like the vending machine bit as shown in the trailers. Possibly the funniest segment arrives when Irving barges into a black male strip club, and, well, things get downright weird. It’s scenes like this that display Knoxville’s fearless nature and willingness to put everything out there in more ways than one.

Not to be upstaged by the idiot art veteran is Jackson Nicoll as Billy. At multiple points in the story (it feels weird saying that here) when Knoxville leaves the scene, Nicoll is let loose on his own as a seemingly innocent child. Having children say lewd things is an easy way for a laugh, but Nicoll and Tremaine make it work, particularly when he gets to insist that one woman on the street looks like a stripper.

Ironically for an entry that tries to actually be coherent in comparison to the previous ones, “Bad Grandpa” ends up being more uneven than the traditional “Jackass” works. It is clear that Knoxville and Tremaine still have a little juice left in them, but perhaps it really is time to retire this infamous brand before they end up grasping thin air.

2.5/4

Captain Phillips (2013) Review


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Captain Phillips

“Captain Phillips” is arguably the best pirate movie ever. This isn’t any of that flamboyant pirate stuff with voodoo and hoodoo (for the record I still love “Pirates of the Caribbean”), this is about real pirates doing the dirty work in a modern world. There is no glory or glamour to their exploits on the seas: these pirates do grunt work for the powerful warlords that control Somalia. When these pirates don’t get what they want, they turn to desperate measures because of their circumstances. But one does not simply take Tom Hanks hostage without a fight.

Based on the 2009 true story, “Captain Phillips” details the Somali pirate takeover of the Maersk Alabama ship on its way to Mombasa, Kenya. Before that point, the film establishes Richard Phillips’ relationship with his wife and then the tight regiment he commands on the Alabama. Phillips is a by-the-book kind of man that has his crew (who would rather enjoy their coffee) enact drills to prepare for incidents like what they eventually face. Then, despite their best efforts, the real pirates soon show up and manage to slip aboard, setting off a battle of wits and determination.

Whether Hanks’ portrayal of Phillips is glorified (as the real-life crew members have recently claimed) or not is beside the point. Seeing a protagonist use his only his strategic skills rather than brawn to combat a dangerous situation is both refreshing and incredibly compelling. Bottled reserve is Hanks’ greatest asset. Phillips and the crew lack the firepower of their Somali adversaries, and instead rely on stealth and cunning to maintain control.

While director Paul Greengrass has established a career of tightly coiled tension (like “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “United 93”), screenwriter Billy Ray also deserves a lot of credit for maintaining the intensity all throughout. Much of this is because Ray’s script conceives this story as one where one false move could mean certain death, and every word spoken by Phillips to hold back the pirates from going ballistic counts. The suspense runs thick as he switches between two perspectives on the ship, Phillips (who is held at gunpoint) and the crew (whom are being searched for), though surprisingly for those who don’t know the full story, this is only the first half.

After the midway point, the pirates realize that they won’t meet the demands of their overlords and take Phillips with them in one of the ships lifeboats. Despite the claustrophobic setting (perfect for Greengrass’ loosely chaotic camera style), this section isn’t quite as taut as it was on the Alabama. Yet even as repetition starts settling in, we get a better since of the desperation of these men, particularly pirate leader Muse.

Hanks may dominate the film (the ending’s emotional catharsis totally sits on his shoulders and he knocks it out of the park with some of his best work), but Barkhad Abdi very nearly matches him. Ray and Greengrass draw parallels between the two captains and how far they will go for their men, and through Abdi’s performance we see the realization that he is failing his mission and will suffer the consequences for it. While the film stops short of placing sympathy on Muse, we understand the situation he has been put in and that dimension makes him a more fascinating adversary.

His contentious struggle with Phillips never gives the viewer a chance to breathe, even with knowledge of the real life outcome. By the end, it feels like we have experienced the same exhaustion and exasperation that Phillips feels, making that climatic standoff with the Navy SEALs and its aftermath matter more. “Captain Phillips” will leave audiences entertained and shaken in equal measure, and reminds us why Tom Hanks is one of this generation’s most celebrated actors.

3.5/4

Machete Kills (2013) Review


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Machete Kills

I love silly fun movies. Sometimes my friends don’t think this is true, and that I can’t enjoy a movie as pure entertainment anymore. False I say. In fact, director Robert Rodriguez has made a bunch of B-action movies in the past that I’ve enjoyed, from “Desperado” to “Planet Terror” to “From Dusk till Dawn.” Those are examples of how to do silly fun movies right. “Machete Kills,” Rodriguez’s latest and the sequel to the original “Machete,” is not.

I’d like to give a plot synopsis but this movie is so haphazard that it would be a fool’s errand to give a clear rundown. Basically though, following the death of Machete’s (Danny Trejo) love interest Sartana (Jessica Alba), the U.S. President (Charlie Sheen, going by his real name Carlos Estevez in the credits) calls Machete back into action. He wants the ex-Federale to track down the terrorist Mendez (Demian Bichir) aiming a nuclear missile at Washington, except things get complicated when Mendez needs to stay alive and the man who killed Sartana might be behind all this.

That may sound like a clear plot but actually watching “Machete Kills” gives the feeling that Rodriguez just made everything up as he went along and stitched together random action scenes and gags. It’s a shame, as Rodriguez showed with “Planet Terror” (a.k.a. the movie where Rose McGowan straps a machine gun to her leg) that he can make a well constructed bloody-funny action movie with creativity and a little bit of wit. “Machete Kills,” much like its predecessor, has Rodriguez flailing around, throwing whatever comes to his mind at a dart board and then cramming it all into 100 minutes.

Although with that many darts, some are bound to hit. The final act, where the movie shifts from its gritty grindhouse roots into full on science fiction, has its charms, most of them having to do with Mel Gibson’s cackling bad guy performance. Gibson goes full loony bin here, rocking a super villain cape like its nothing and tossing off his ludicrous dialogue with aplomb. On a similar note, Bichir has a lot of fun wavering between Mendez’s psychotic and tender sides (he’s got a major case of split personality). In fact, most of the villains are the highlights, although Sofia Vergara’s shtick becomes annoying. Oh, and your childhood memories of “Spy Kids” (also Rodriguez) will be distorted when Alexa Vega appears, dolled up in various skimpy outfits.

But while the reckless abandon can be occasionally infectious, it is mostly tiresome and overdone. The movie starts out at 11 and then stays there throughout, forgetting that the best of these movies give breather points so that the big moments pay off, rather than repetitively pile on top of each other. Furthermore, many of those “crazy” pay off moments thud because Rodriguez often resorts to cheap looking digital effects to accomplish them. I’ve seen movies from over 20 years ago that pulled off the cool gore better than “Machete Kills” because they used tactile practical effects rather than rushed computer work.

It doesn’t help that Machete himself is just a rather boring hero. Danny Trejo has long shown that he can be a reliably cool character actor, but so perhaps being a lead actor just doesn’t work well with him, as both “Machete” movies have shown. Rodriguez seems to know this too, as the stone-faced protagonist is frequently overshadowed by everything else around him. Maybe that is a clue that “Machete” should have stayed as the (fun) one-joke fake trailer it originated as, rather than the two (going on three) movie series that repeats the same said joke into the ground.

1.5/4

Gravity (2013) Review

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Gravity

The meaning of the word spectacle in movies has become twisted over the last couple of decades. There is very often a “more is more” thinking behind spectacle, that to be the reigning king of movies there must be bigger action, bigger special effects, and bigger characters. The new movie by Alfonso Cauron (director of the acclaimed “Children of Men” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), “Gravity,” puts that mindset to rest. For as large scale as “Gravity” appears to be, it’s greatest asset is actually it’s simplicity and restraint.

Much of this to with its unwavering focus on its central character, Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock. While George Clooney is also an important player here too, the majority of the film is a one-woman show of Bullock and Cauron keeps the audience attached to her through frequent close-ups. This means that nearly the entire film is reliant on her performance, and not only is Bullock more than up for the task, but this is arguably the strongest work she has ever done.

The little bits of self-effacing humor that the actress has shown throughout her career endear us to her before the action starts, and then afterwards the sense of fear and self-doubt that lines her face is incredibly palpable. Meanwhile, in his shortened amount of screen time, Clooney is as effortlessly charming as ever, and serves as a perfect conduit for convincing Stone (and the audience) that everything is going to be all right. Fans of “Apollo 13” (who isn’t?) will also get a kick out of hearing Ed Harris’ voice as Mission Control back on Earth.

And once the danger arrives in the form of bullet-speed debris, “Gravity” is practically non-stop in its thrills. Despite never being in space myself, the terror of floating through the endless void with nothing to stop is surprisingly contagious. Suspense runs relentlessly thick throughout even in the quiet moments because we are made aware that one minor slipup could be fatal for the characters. Adding to this is the silent beauty of space, where large explosions and clashes are muted against the actor’s voices and Steven Price’s score.

Cauron masterfully holds the attention through the many long takes that comprise the film. In an age where many movie spectacles are chopped into hundreds of quick edits to create excitement, it’s quite remarkable how Cauron is able to better those simply by holding the camera on his actors and tracking them around the “sets” as they make near-death escapes. I put sets in quotations because almost of the film was surely made with computer effects, yet the minimalism on display and total immersion into the character’s journey makes them feel completely real.

However, “Gravity” is far from simply a technical showcase for Cauron and the effects artists. In addition to the tense physical challenge Ryan has to overcome, she also undergoes a personal arc that runs underneath the plot mechanics. Details of her life back home come to light that inform her actions, and the much of imagery carries a subtext of rebirth. For those that parse out that meaning from the visuals, then the ending will prove to be especially cathartic. Even so, “Gravity” wraps that spiritual story around a film full of fear, excitement, and wonder, so it works both as pure entertainment and a great film in general.

4/4

Prisoners (2013) Review


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Prisoners

Truly great crime thrillers are few and far between. Now I’m not talking about heist capers like “Ocean’s Eleven” or tales of cops and robbers. I’m talking about crime thrillers that display the fringes and the dark corners of humanity, something in vein of the classic “Seven” or “Silence of the Lambs.” Part of this has to do with a fall back on gimmicks (i.e. the killer with a crazy pattern) or an effort to throw the audience into disturbing areas that end up feeling cheap and exploitative. To accomplish them, they need a certain display of tonal control to properly engage and provoke, which director Dennis Villeneuve showcases a knack for in “Prisoners.”

The setup is every family’s worst nightmare. The youngest daughters from Dover and Birch families want to grab something from the Dover’s house just down the street, and the parents let them go with the teens. But the kids never grabbed their older siblings to watch them, and a few hours go by before the families realize something is wrong. They cannot find them in their frantic search, and the ensuing investigation from Detective Loki doesn’t quell their worst fears one bit.

In the case of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the investigation only makes him more frustrated and eventually dangerous. Keller kidnaps the main suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), after he is released from custody from lack of strong evidence, and this is where “Prisoners” gets really interesting. From this point on, Keller becomes a conflicted anti-hero that’s hard, and then harder, to sympathize with. Because of Jackman’s intensely committed performance, we perfectly understand the pain and determination that drives Keller’s motivations, but our allegiance to him is questioned. Dano has been playing creepy dudes and/or introverts throughout his career, so of course his oddball demeanor paints a target to the audience, but what if Keller is wrong in his convictions?

Loki’s story is much more understated than the fire of Keller’s, though his internal journey is arguably the more compelling one. It’s established early on that he’s solved every case he’s had in the past, so when Gyllenhaal slowly lets out a little more emotion in his performance as the plot trails on, Loki’s frustration is palpably real. These girls may not be his own, but he feels a moral obligation to both the families and himself to see this through to the bitter end, which doesn’t come quickly.

Atypical of many thrillers, Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski let the plot details boil over in a slow simmer rather than breakneck pace. This restrained pacing is fitting for this case as the loss of a child for such a long time can be unbearable to go through, and every hour feels like an eternity. Proportionally, the film takes place over a week but feels like much longer, and it’s a credit to Villeneuve that he lets us feel the length of time without dulling us in the drama. With that said, I could have done with streamlining of the various red herring plot threads, especially since it’s pretty clear which ones aren’t the real kidnappers.

There are also copious amounts of religious symbolism sprinkled throughout, though I couldn’t really surmise a meaningful purpose for them. They feel like clunky window dressing to a story that didn’t really need them. And when “Prisoners” finally reaches it’s closing stretch, the wade through its emotional muck is proven to be worth it with the revelations and final character actions that bring closure. The haunting beauty of Roger Deakins’ visuals in its major climatic drive through night traffic is a perfect example of a film that can engross us even as we see the dark side of humanity.

3.5/4

You're Next (2013) Review


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You're Next

“You’re Next” has taken a long road in getting to theaters. It premiered at festivals two years ago to raves and then had to sit on the back burner until now because of messy distribution business. It’s been a long two years waiting for this to come out, especially since legitimately good horror movies are in short stock and the gems are sought after by horror fans (like myself) as if they were gold. Fear not though, because while long delays like that could also be a signal that the movie wasn’t actually as good as we were lead to believe, “You’re Next” lives up to its hype, and the reasons why are a little unexpected.

It’s the typical setup we’ve seen before in countless other home invasion horror movies: a family goes out to their home in the woods for a reunion dinner. Many of them haven’t seen each other in a long time, and internal resentments begin bubbling to the surface quickly. But they now have a bigger problem on their hands than petty squabbling, as multiple masked men lay siege to the house and take out the family one by one. This general outline, however, doesn’t begin to touch the little details that writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard (“V/H/S”) employ to flesh things out and even turn some horror clichés on their heads.

That’s not to say that “You’re Next” is the next horror deconstruction like “Cabin in the Woods” or “Scream.” Rather, Wingard and Barrett start things out on familiar territory and then slowly begin twisting the little things that frustrate horror viewers. Don’t you hate how everyone’s cell phones in horror movies are always conveniently out of service? Well one character suggests they might be using a jammer. Isn’t it frustrating when a character just lays on the ground screaming in terror as the killer slowly raises his weapon? That isn’t like survivalist Erin, who will roll out of the way, kick the killer in the balls, grab the nearest weapon and begin wailing on him until there’s no possible way he’s alive.

Everything that is unexpectedly smart about this movie can be distilled into Erin, who takes the initiative when everyone else cowers in fear and transitions the movie from straight slasher into a more fun thriller territory. The second half becomes a game of cat-and-mouse where Erin, who must love “Home Alone” given the traps she sets up, and the killers attempt to outsmart each other around the house, often to very bloody ends. These are the kind of kills that inspire both shocks and applause in the audience in equal measure, and the darkly funny tone that emerges once Erin fights back is a delight.

Of course, it’s not all perfect. It’s clear that Wingard and Barrett have their heart more in the blood soaked laughs than in straight horror suspense. The first quarter or so is rather routine and uninspired, as if they felt an obligation to put in a “scary” section before turning the tables. The acting from some parties can be suspect too. Sure, horror movies don’t need great acting but when some of them are quite good then the lesser ones stand out more. Sharni Vinson is the obvious standout, whose physical performance and intensity plausibly sell Erin’s cunning will despite her waif-like stature. Horror veterans A.J. Bowen and Barbara Crampton show up for nice turns too, although a few of the other actors let them down with unconvincing reactions to situations.

Yet sometimes when watching a horror movie, the minor setbacks can be taken with a grain of salt when creativity and smarts shine through the cracks. “You’re Next” of one of those. The uneven acting and slow start eventually fade away when you’re having so much fun watching a character who actually fights back against the psychos rather than bend to their will in cowardice. This is the kind of horror movie best enjoyed with a big group of friends (and/or audience) for the full experience.

3/4

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Pain and Gain (2013) Review


“Pain and Gain”

Michael Bay is tough to like. He makes the kinds of movies I like (crazy action movies), and yet with a few exceptions I don’t like most of his movies. I found the first “Bad Boys,” first “Transformers,” and “The Island” enjoyable, but the only one I could say was good was “The Rock.” All his other movies ranged from average (“Armageddon”) to painfully terrible (“Transformers 2”). With a stroke of luck though, his new movie, “Pain and Gain,” overcame the trepidation that comes with him and came out as easily his best movie since “The Rock.”

Much of this can be attributed to the fact that “Pain and Gain” is based on a true story, and one that proves to be an engagingly loopy one filled with muscle-bound protagonists and pitch-black comedy. Three bodybuilders, fed up with being on the outs, decide to rob a millionaire whom they believe doesn’t deserve his success. For the ringleader, Daniel Lugo, his rationale is that this man doesn’t care much about exercise while him and his cohorts Paul and Adrian do.

These three are perhaps the most self-absorbed, narcissistic and dim-witted main characters to come by in a long time. The key difference here, and why this one works better than many of Bay’s previous movies, is that we aren’t supposed to like them. One of big problems I have with Bay’s movies is that we are supposed to like characters that are doing horrible/annoying things (the cheeriness that Marcus and Mike have while driving over dead bodies in “Bad Boys 2” for instance). Here, there isn’t that pretense. Daniel, Paul and Adrian are terrible people, and we laugh at their antics, not with them. When they cross the line from the already bad extortion and torture into flat-out murder, these guys have what’s coming to them.

Even with though their actions are reprehensible, “Pain and Gain” finds plenty to laugh at in their general boneheaded nature. In this regard, The Rock (sorry Dwayne, you will always be known as The Rock to me) completely steals the movie as the Jesus loving, coke-snorting maniac that is Paul. His mannerisms and ways of speaking, especially when coked out of his mind, frequently got some of the best laughs out of me.

Still, this not to disregard Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie’s work as Daniel and Adrian respectively. Mackie unfortunately gets the shaft compared to Wahlberg and Johnson, although he gets his moments to shine every now and then. Wahlberg, meanwhile, is lucky enough to not only have good comedic timing, but also many of the scripts more memorable lines. In fact, surprisingly for a Michael Bay movie, the script by “Captain America” writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is the best thing about it. I was shocked at how many hilarious quotes were sticking in my mind after the movie finished.

While “Pain and Gain” definitely contains more good than bad, its weaknesses are familiar to those in other Bay movies. The most obvious is that it is much too long. Bay still hasn’t learned that not every movie needs to push its way over the two-hour mark, especially when it’s a comedy with scenes that don’t add to the movie in any significant way. One where Wahlberg heads up a neighborhood watch could have easily been just an amusing Blu-ray deleted scene. Also, the multiple scenes of damaged millionaire Kershaw dealing with a diarrhea-prone patient mate in the hospital were not only unnecessary, but just plain gross when the movie didn’t need to rely on such low-brow material.

There’s also the matter of an overabundance of narration. It would have been fine had it only been used for Daniel, Paul and Adrian, but other minor characters get their own scenes too when they would have been better without it. Narration can be a useful storytelling tool, but an overreliance on it can be a cheap crutch, and giving it out to too many characters is erratic and jarring.

Still, even with this unevenness that is typical of Bay’s other movies also, “Pain and Gain” mostly succeeds because of the fine cast assembled here (I’ll give this to Bay, he knows how to put together a great cast of character actors, including Ed Harris and Tony Shalhoub) and the absurd story that provides it with so much material to mine. A word of warning, the trailer makes it look like an action comedy, whereas it really is just a super dark comedy with small bits of action. And as a no-boundaries type of comedy, it largely works, even some bloat and excess keeping it from totally soaring.

3/4

42 (2013) Review


42

Everyone has seen at least one inspirational sports movie in their lifetime. I mean, this entire last generation practically has “Remember the Titans” engrained in their heads from the numerous times they’ve seen it on TV (additionally in my case for all three years my middle school put it on in the auditorium). Sometimes with these movies, there is also a theme of racial prejudice that serves as the backbone of the story, such as “Glory Road” and the aforementioned “Titans.” With that in mind, it’s odd that it took this long for a biopic about Jackie Robinson, one of baseball’s most famous and important players, to come along, but it’s here at last with “42.”

Rather than take the birth-to-death route that many biopics do, “42” instead zeroes in on the start of Robinson’s career with the Brooklyn Dodgers thanks to executive Branch Rickey’s insistence on breaking the barrier for non-white baseball players in the M.L.B. Being the first African-American to play in the major leagues excites Robinson, even to the point of proposing to his girlfriend once he signs the contract, although the road to being accepted isn’t without its obstacles. Even without taking into account the opposing teams trying to rile up his short temper during games, Robinson has to deal with prejudice from his own teammates despite his skills on the diamond.

Truth be told, “42” doesn’t break any new ground in regards to the sports movie genre. Yet, the movie has just the right amount of earnest sentimentality and intense drama to make it work. There are certainly times where it threatens to overstep itself in the emotional manipulation, such as randomly switching a few times to the perspectives of young boys who look up to Robinson, but don’t have any bearing on the plot itself.

In a similar vain, sportswriter Wendell Smith, who seemed like he would be used as a framing device as he follows Robinson on this journey, is mostly window dressing in the grand scheme of things and isn’t developed beyond sidekick tag-along. He felt like a part that writer/director Brian Helgeland saw more as a historical checkbox than an integral part of the story being told aside from his initial actions that get it all started.

With that said, it’s hard not to be swept up in the events that categorized this year in Robinson’s life. When Phillies manager Ben Chapmen (played against type by the usually affable Alan Tudyk) berates him nonstop during a game, we really feel the anger and frustration bubbling within Robinson. When he goes back into the dugout and releases it all in a fit of bat-breaking rage, it’s an emotionally powerful moment to witness, all the more impressive given this is Chadwick Boseman’s first major acting role. An episode of “Law and Order” and “ C.S.I.” isn’t exactly the calling card for undertaking a part as daunting as Jackie Robinson, but the decision paid off greatly as Boseman steals the movie from his more experienced costars with inner turmoil and charisma to spare.

It can understandably take a few minutes to get used to Harrison Ford’s heightened performance as Branch Rickey. With the rest of the movie and actors being played with earnest seriousness, he might seem like a caricature. As time goes on and the relationship Rickey and Robinson is given some screen time, the character settles into a groove and shows some of Ford’s more inspired acting after recent years of phoning it in for a paycheck.

Big star Ford aside, Helgeland was wise to fill out the rest of the roles with recognizable character actors. While he isn’t in the movie for too long, Christopher Meloni gets one of the more memorable parts as trainer Leo Durocher, who satisfying puts the rest of the team in its place when they create a petition to stop playing as long as Robinson is there. John C. McGinley gets an amusing bit as broadcaster Red Barber, and Lucas Black has a nice part as Pee Wee Reese, one of the few team players who openly sticks up for Robinson. One of the neat and more fulfilling things about the movie is that although Robinson is certainly the central focus, the supporting characters get enough dimension and definition to make them stand out and the movie feel more complete.

That’s why “42” works as well as it does. On the outside, it looks and unfolds like many other inspirational sports movies, hitting the right audience pleasing notes of rousing excitement without really taking risks with the material. If this can be overlooked, the movie yields very gratifying results, and the breakout performance from Boseman will most likely win you over even if the rest of the movie doesn’t. In this age of darkly cynical movies, having one come along that is unabashedly feel-good and made so well is quite refreshing.

3/4

Evil Dead (2013) Review


Evil Dead (2013)

The “Evil Dead” trilogy from “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi is one of the more famous in the horror genre, not the least of which is because each installment is so different from the last. While the starter is a straightforward brutal horror movie, its sequels would play up comedy in increasing amounts until the concluder “Army of Darkness” contained very little traces of horror anymore. Now, as much as I love the first one, and it is still a great little B-movie, the crudeness of its appearance makes it riper for a reimagining than many other hallowed horror classics. With that in mind, the prospect of young blood coming in to rejuvenate the original in remake form had me excited, particularly because newcomer Fede Alvarez was determined to return to the horror elements that begin the trilogy.

After a prologue that establishes the grim mood, Alaverz and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues admirably avoid the cliché of kids going to a cabin in the woods to party. There is a real reason for this group to go there: their friend Mia is attempting to kick a drug habit cold turkey with the help of them and her estranged brother David. This provides a bit more of a backbone to the characters than I expected, and I appreciated that there was an attempt at creating actual characters we can care for.

From there, as is expected in an “Evil Dead” movie, they find the book of the dead, someone reads it, and then it all hits the fan. Or at least it should have. The largest problem here, and one that looms over the whole movie once the demons are unleashed, is that every time the movie feels like its gearing up to the next level by building momentum it stops dead in its tracks. There is a pervasive start-stop-start-stop feeling to the pacing that often kills the excitement and tension that previously looked like it was building, leaving only the dread-induced atmosphere to carry it along when the thrust lets up.

Taken as individual parts and scenes, the set pieces are fairly impressive on their own. If there is one thing that is unquestionably great about this remake, and boy is it incredible, is the gore factor. Raimi’s first two “Evil Dead” movies certainly let the blood flow liberally (to put it mildly), but they look restrained in comparison to the torrent of violence and gore on display here. Alvarez achieves all of this almost entirely through practical effects, and the hard work put into them pays off with their startling shock value and cringe inducing moments. Once the climax draws closer, it only gets more and more over-the-top until reaching a final kill that is spectacular in its gleeful abandon.

Alvarez’s heart is in the right place, and his intentions to diversify his iteration from the 1981 original (when he isn’t referencing or recreating specific bits) are mostly successful, although even he can’t escape many of the tired tropes of the genre. Some of the more effectively done jump scares are often overshadowed by hackneyed ones, and the movie has a couple look-away-look-back scares too many, as well as another predictable bit with a mirror. Also, and skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid a minor spoiler, the black character is once again the first to die. Come on, this is 2013, we should be over this by now.

Even with these issues, this remake of “Evil Dead” can be enjoyed if entered with the right mindset. There are certainly many callbacks to the originals, although this definitely feels more like Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” than Raimi’s “Evil Dead.” The gore and violence is very extreme, so the faint of heart (and stomach) will want to skip out. Additionally, the tone is one of dark horror, so don’t go in expecting the slapstick humor that was injected into “Evil Dead 2.” This is a hardcore effort in mainstream horror, where horror movies are usually toned down for mass audiences, that is often fairly entertaining even though it doesn’t all come together into an unrelenting stream of suspense.

2.5/4

Trance (2013) Review


Trance

The thing about director Danny Boyle is that he never ties himself down to one particular genre. Every single one of his films is vastly different from the last, whether it is drug addiction in “Trainspotting,” zombie horror in “28 Days Later,” science fiction in “Sunshine,” etc. After going through a short phase of (great) award winning films with “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” Boyle’s new film “Trance” is a return of sorts to the pulpier material found in his early films, but it eventually begins to feel more like a step backwards than a fun throwback.

Simon (James McAvoy) is an art auctioneer pulled into a group of thieves concocting a heist to steal the Francisco Goya painting “Witches in the Air” at the latest auction. The heist goes off fairly well, with the exception of a moment where Simon pulls a taser on ringleader Frank (Vincent Cassel) to make it look more genuine when he gives over the painting. In retaliation for the unplanned act, Frank knocks Simon out with his gun before making off with the art…or so he thinks. It turns out Simon hid the painting for himself, but because Frank knocked him out he can’t remember where he put it. In order to get the information out of Simon, he sends him to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), which complicates things in more ways than one.

Viewers expecting another feel-good inspirational Boyle film will want to turn away now, as “Trance” is much more in line with the mean and lean “Shallow Grave” than “Slumdog Millionaire.” Completing the cycle is the return of his old screenwriter John Hodge, whose blend of twists and shocking violence comes back in full force here. Unfortunately, his storytelling is more like the messy “The Beach” than the well-oiled thrills of “Grave.” Everything starts out very well, pulled together with entertaining snap and ease. And once Elizabeth is introduced, the hypnotherapy scenes have a uniquely soothing effect as she peels back the layers in Simon’s mind.

What makes these scenes so interesting to watch is that they actually feel like how dreams really are: small in scale but often filled with details and occurrences that can’t be explained. There are no massive special effects like snow mountains or folding cities, just seemingly normal yet unexplainable events that play with the audience’s perception and hold on the film’s established reality. Guiding them through the dreamlike happenings is the talented trio of actors carrying it all on their own. McAvoy and Cassel are as good as they’ve ever been, but this is really Dawson’s film to shine as she navigates the tricky role handed to her. She is successfully able to play the part of innocent outsider while at the same time showing a level of command and control when interacting with these thugs.

It’s a shame then that even with such an intriguing setup and follow-through, the film slowly begins to succumb to it’s illusive intentions, where the mysterious soon shifts to muddled. Reality and imagination become intertwined, but not in that compelling way that others like “Inception” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” are. And as with other heist films, there are plot turns that reveal the trick behind the magic, and neither of them are particularly well done.

They represent a complete tonal shift that suddenly turns the film into something it was not before (kind of like a few other Boyle films). The intention is to flip the plot on its head, and instead it feels abrupt and misguided. There are clues to them placed throughout the beginning and middle, so it’s not like they weren’t planned out with that in mind, but the end result just feels like a jumble. There was actually a point near the end when things turn very grim regarding a tertiary character that I asked myself, “I thought this was about a painting?”

As the years go by, I can see “Trance” becoming an interesting curiosity simply on the fact that it is a Danny Boyle film. From a technical standpoint, from the cinematography to the visual palette, it’s impeccably done. The sleek, shapely and colorful set design adds to the entrancing mood and atmosphere, and the film moves at an entertaining enough pace even as it steamrolls into very over-the-top territory. “Trance” is much like a dream itself, when it’s done you’re not sure what to make of it, and it will most likely fizzle away quickly, but it held your attention even as it lost your comprehension.

2.5/4

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013) Review



“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”

A cavalcade of talented people does not necessarily make a good movie. All of those elements need to come together in a way that gels, and has creative inspiration behind it. The new comedy full of talented people, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” certainly has the ingredients and the premise ripe for comedic potential. Using magicians and illusionists as the backbone for a crazy comedy is a sound one, and I can see someone running with that concept in a hilarious way. Unfortunately, “Burt Wonderstone” is not that movie I would have hoped for.

As a child, bullies harassed Burt, and his single mother often stayed at work late. But one year for his birthday, she gave him a magic set that entranced and encouraged him to practice it. He soon befriends another outcast at school, Anton, and the two of them work together to form a magic act. Flash-forward decades later, and the two of them have become successful Las Vegas magicians, only now their popularity is waning after years of tedious tricks. Soon Burt’s ego gets the best of him, and with a new rival stealing the spotlight he must get over himself and work together with Anton on a comeback.

There are two simple ways of describing “Burt Wonderstone:” wasted potential and one-note. I would also add not too funny. There are certainly a bunch of laugh-out-loud moments, although they are frequently drowned by long stretches of flat jokes. Most of this has to do with the characterization of Burt, who is so egotistical and shallow that he becomes an annoying and tiresome protagonist. Even though a clueless and aloof buffoon would seem like a perfect fit for Steve Carell, the actor never manages to go behind the same vain shtick. When his personality turnaround comes, it is hard to care because the material wasn’t funny enough to make the jerk persona entertaining.

It doesn’t help that with so much focus on Burt, the (many) supporting characters often feel pushed to the sidelines. Steve Buscemi (Anton) leaves the movie for a long period of time, and having him around longer could have given more heart to the movie. Olivia Wilde’s love interest is there just to be the butt of Burt’s antics, and Alan Arkin (as Burt’s magician role model) shines in the few scenes he has. Only Jim Carrey, arguably the funniest part of the movie, makes a real impression. As the rival Steve Gray, Carrey plays a faux Criss Angel type who puts himself through endurance tests rather than traditional magic acts, and I would love to have seen a movie based around him instead.

On the surface level, “Burt Wonderstone” has the feel of a Will Ferrell man-child movie a la “Blades of Glory” and “Anchorman.” But “Wonderstone” lacks the comedic energy and sense of absurdity that those movies had. It feels reigned in, and often hits the same beats seen shortly before: Burt is shallow, Burt is sexist, and Steve might be psychotic. For a movie that features people performing seemingly impossible acts, only on rare occasions does it feel like it harnesses that silly liveliness. Most of those moments come near the end, and to its credit, the final punch line to the climax was absolutely hysterical, so the movie went out on a high note. Even before that, when Carell and Carrey square off against each other at a birthday party, the interplay between the “Bruce Almighty” costars is frequently funny.

The same cannot be said for the rest of the movie though. Beyond not being very funny, the annoying nature of the main character is a hindrance rather than being hilarious, and his one-note nature becomes tiring before long. Even with other capable actors such as James Gandolfini, Gillian Jacobs, and Brad Garrett, as well as “Horrible Bosses” writers John Francis Daley and Jonathon Goldstein, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” remains in the safe middle ground for comedies. It is never horrendously bad and it is never consistently outrageously funny, merely standing as blandly forgettable.

2/4

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) Review



“Oz: The Great and Powerful”

Prequels to classic movies are all the rage these days. There is plenty of them out there, but the problem is that few of them are complete successes. For every unquestionably good one, like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” there are at least a few less-than-fully-satisfying ones like “Hannibal Rising” and the new “Star Wars” entries. This is understandable, as it is much harder to create the buildup to an already existing movie than it is to continue off said movie in a sequel. Still, Hollywood keeps on trying, which leads us to the most recent inclusion in the craze, “Oz: The Great and Powerful.”

Positioned as a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” “Great and Powerful” follows the story of how the wizard himself came to power in the eternally green land. It turns out he was not really a wizard, but rather a magician at a traveling circus. His womanizing ways get him in trouble with the other circus mates, and in the midst of chase, a tornado arrives to pull him away in a hot air balloon. Once the storm dies down, he finds himself in the strange fantasy land of Oz (which is also his name), where he is greeted by the witch Theodora. She reveals that a great wizard was prophesized to save the land from destruction, and that he must be that very wizard. Reluctant as he is, Oz plays along with this, until he soon realizes that he will have to step up and be the hero of Oz everyone hopes him to be.

The basic storyline is nothing new; prophecies in fantasy plots, especially ones with witches, have been done to death. The real thrill is in the details that update the famous world for the 21st century. The Oz land presented here is much more detailed than the one imagined for Dorothy Gale in 1939, and while plenty of it is done with (impressive) computer effects, the use of real sets and props whenever possible grounds the movie in its established reality. From a technical standpoint, between the special effects, costumes, and art design, “Oz” is near perfect.

When it comes to the casting, things get a little uneven. All of the supporting players are great in their roles, notably Rachel Weisz as the evil witch Evanora and Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch. Williams arguably has the tougher job, since she has to compete with Billie Burke’s portrayal in the ’39 movie. She acquits herself well though, displaying both innate sweetness and wit as Glinda sees through Oz’s sham attitude. For Weisz, given that her character is not in the original film, she is able to act free of expectation and provides a sense of seething menace.

This a slight heads up, as the next paragraph will have some spoilers, so if you want to go into the movie completely blind then you can skip to the end of this review. I’m thankful that Weisz was present on villain duty, as Mila Kunis (Theodora) is not able to convey the same evil presence. She is fine at first, where her wide-eyed persona fits Theodora’s naïve nature very well, but once her character transforms into the Wicked Witch (yes, THAT Wicked Witch), her performance is less than convincing. Even without unfavorably stacking her against Margaret Hamilton’s iconic iteration of the character, Kunis is simply miscast for this part. She never quite finds the right tone in her voice to be a considerable threat, and the post-transformation makeup is less than great.

Meanwhile, James Franco, as the titular Oz, is the opposite of Kunis. Oz is meant to start out as a fake and a put-on, but Franco overplays the smarminess to a degree where it is hard to get into the character. Although as the movie and Oz’s character arc moves on, Franco settles into the role with his easy charm and humor. As good he gets, he is often upstaged by the sidekick characters, who are perhaps the best part of the movie. They may not be as memorable as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, or Cowardly Lion, yet Zach Braff’s flying monkey Finley is a consistently funny comic relief and Joey King’s China Girl provides an emotional backbone to the grandly surreal visuals.

Speaking of flying monkeys, the evil ones make a return here, and will most likely terrify children even more so than before. They also signify another successful part of this prequel, which are the references to the classic film. While most prequels crowbar in references as pure fan service simply to get reaction out of the audience, director Sam Raimi and writers David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner manage to successfully integrate them into the story without feeling forced. The sleeping poppy field is neatly incorporated into the third act conflict, the yellow brick road is ever-present without a character awkwardly pointing it out to the audience, and the wizard’s smoke illusion has a clever setup along with many more Easter eggs to find.

All in all, even with a couple acting issues, few prequels are as good as “Oz: The Great and Powerful.” It manages to both avoid the trap of predictably linking up perfectly with the original and at the same time setting up many of the elements that will come into play later in the story of Oz. Although it has the impossible task of living up to an untouchable piece of cinema, “Great and Powerful” is a competent follow-up that finds the right tone to appeal to both audiences young and old. It is certainly better than 1985’s disturbingly traumatic “Return to Oz.”

3/4

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Side Effects (2013) Review

“Side Effects”

Steven Soderbergh is not a filmmaker that likes to settle into a safe zone and follow a certain niche as some others do. With the exception of his “Ocean’s” sequels, just about each and every one of his movies is their own entity. Almost none of them fall into the same genres or styles, as in the last few years the man has leaped from the dry comedy of “The Informant” to the eerie dread in “Contagion” and recently to the experiences of male strippers in “Magic Mike.” With an output as diverse and experimental as his, his films don’t always strike a chord in me, but when they do they hit hard. His most recent effort, “Side Effects” decidedly falls into the latter category.

With her husband Martin recently released from a four-year prison sentence, Emily Taylor is looking to rebuild her life with him. Things remain difficult for her to cope with however when her depression begins to take over again in a failed suicide attempt. Her doctor, Jonathon Banks, prescribes her to an anti-depressant to ease her back into life, but this doesn’t work as well as they would hope. After speaking with her previous psychiatrist, Jonathon prescribes her to a newly tested and developed drug on the market. Things appear to be going fine at first, until a shocking event sends Emily and Jonathon’s lives spiraling out of control.

With a smart director like Soderbergh at the helm, along with frequent writing collaborator Scott Z. Burns, “Side Effects” is able to elevate itself above what could have been B-grade thriller material. The surprising turns that the plot takes reminded me of the frequent twists in the outrageous but fun “Wild Things,” though they are handled here with sharper precision and less trashy abandon. As with other Soderbergh works, the film has been filed down to its core elements. No shot is wasted and every scene counts. Him and Burns play the audience like a fiddle with skillful misdirection and manipulation, always keeping them on their toes and never settling into a predictable path.

It also helps to have a talented cast to guide them along, of which this film isn’t lacking. Despite not having too much screen time compared to his three costars, Channing Tatum continues to impress me recently as an actor. For someone who I used to dread seeing in a movie, his continuing experience with Soderbergh (he was also in “Haywire” and “Magic Mike”) has paid off very well in honing his skills. And after a seemingly long absence from movies, Catherine Zeta-Jones looks to relish having the more “fun” role of the bunch. As Emily’s previous doctor, she often gets the juiciest dialogue to spout, particularly in her exchanges with Jude Law.

The real meat of the story involves the relationship between Emily and her new doctor, who are played by Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Mara’s more internalized acting style (also put to great use in her breakout role in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) complements her character nicely, who usually appears to be in a different world than everyone else. She initially seems to be the protagonist, but soon the focus shifts to Banks, at which time Law takes command. His role is the most difficult, having to transition between caring, obsessive, frustrated and distraught often in the same scene. It is an impressive performance from an actor who is often, in my opinion, undervalued by some. Banks’ side of the story adds a timely and relevant edge to the movie that separates it from other thrillers made in the same vain. In a time where everyone is taking prescriptions or some other form of medication, and people are worried about how taking so many of those will affect their brain chemistry, this lends to the ominous and clinical style of the movie. In the grand scheme of things, the subject matter is mostly window dressing, although it definitely adds to the psychological elements of the thriller plot.

Whether or not everything totally adds up in the end hardly matters. Burns and Soderbergh have constructed a taut and tightly wound thriller that takes the audience on a suspenseful ride. I have heard some call the movie “Hitchcockian” in its twists and psychological underpinnings, and I would agree with that assessment too. Even with the clear influence from the master of suspense, “Side Effects” carves out its own course with the modern premise at its core and strive for smartly realized entertainment.

3.5/4

Warm Bodies (2013) Review


“Warm Bodies”

When we think of romanticized horror monsters, we mostly think of vampires. Whether it be “Twilight” or the Lestat novels by Anne Rice (the most famous being “Interview with the Vampire”), vampires have a long history of being romantic when they aren’t too preoccupied with being vicious blood-suckers. Zombies have not had the same luxury. Throughout their long history in film, zombies have been treated as mindless hordes that are oftentimes just plot devices to explore other themes. However, the new zombie movie “Warm Bodies” looks to shake up the zombie formula by showing a side of the flesh-eaters that we weren’t privy to.

Despite not remembering his name, R is a zombie with a pretty well adjusted life. In his spare time, he has taken up residence inside an abandoned airplane where he gathers possessions from a lost world to pass the time. See in this world, zombies aren’t totally mindless; they are just limited in their verbal communication skills and are shackled by the need to consume human flesh. When a group of humans venture out on a medicine run and the zombies fight with them in heated battle, R takes notice of tough girl Julie. After eating the brains of her boyfriend, R gains the memories of their relationship and manages to save Julie from being eaten by his friends. After taking her back to his place in order to keep her safe, he begins having feelings towards her, even with the obvious barriers keeping them apart.

As “Warm Bodies” continues on, the allusions to “Romeo and Juliet” become more obvious as the story moves forward. If you still did not catch them after the blatant homage to the famous balcony scene, then perhaps you should brush up on your Shakespeare. But the movie doesn’t slavishly devote itself to repeating the well-travelled beats of the classic story. Also, surprisingly for a zombie movie, it establishes a much more light and sweet tone. R’s internal monologue smoothly introduces us to this world with deadpan humor, and the combination of Nicholas Hoult’s performance and writer/director Jonathon Levine’s script gives the movie its own particular identity.

When separated from his inner thoughts, Hoult has to create an entire character out of mannerisms and facial expressions. The subtle touches he incorporates go a long way in helping the audience identify with him and his tragic existence. Despite barely being able to speak, the relationship and chemistry between him and Teresa Palmer is very believable. Palmer bares a more-than-passing resemblance to Kristen Stewart, but she is much more effective at creating an angst-ridden yet likable love interest than her more famous counterpart often is. Rob Corddry and Analeigh Tipton are also nice highlights as R and Julie’s best friends respectively, with Corddry even getting a couple unexpectedly touching scenes.

Even though this is a PG-13 zombie movie, which I would usually say is heresy, Levine is cleverly able to accomplish a decent amount of carnage without treading into the R rating that would restrict his target audience. The zombie attack scenes don’t feel too constrained and tamed by the rating (though they don’t reach the levels of gore you would expect from zombies) and the final battle with the “Bonies” (super decomposed zombies with only their hunger for flesh) is a well-constructed action set piece. Where Levine stumbles is in the plot developments he introduces once the other zombies learn of R and Julie’s relationship. Without spoiling anything, the ideas presented fit with the humorous and romantic tone, but their execution feels rushed and rather vague in the explanation, requiring some suspension of disbelief. Likewise, the concept of R gaining Julie’s boyfriend’s memories is intriguing yet underdeveloped. The movie makes it appear as if R is the only zombie with this ability, and pushes away the implications of all the other ones possessing this too. It would have been nice to see Corddry’s character experience this too.

Still, “Warm Bodies” hits the right targets it aims for, namely the dry humor, characters, and romantic bond between its two leads. If you were a fan of Levine’s previous movie, “50/50,” “Bodies” contains the same qualities that made that one such a treat too, just with more dead bodies and a more prevalent high concept hook. Valentine’s Day may have passed but its appeals can still be felt without a holiday to boost them up.

3/4

Mama (2013) Review


“Mama”

Guillermo del Toro is a man who genuinely loves horror movies. Even when he isn’t making horror movies of his own (such as “Pans Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”), he is producing original horror works by newcomer directors. Even though not all of them have been of consistent quality (for every great “The Orphanage” there is an average “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”), there has been a constant theme of horror mixed with the dark fantasy that his directed work is known for. His new producing effort, “Mama,” is closer to the lower end of the spectrum, although it’s positive virtues are strong enough to counterbalance the many stumbles along the way.

Through a series of events that start with the 2008 financial crisis, a father kills his wife and coworkers and then takes off with his two daughters. The three of them mysteriously disappear and aren’t heard from for five years. During that time, the father’s twin brother has been tirelessly searching for them, to the irritation of his punk rocker girlfriend since the two of them are strapped for cash. When the girls are miraculously found alive, they are put under their uncle’s care in a house where they can be observed and reintegrated back into society. However, the ghostly being, who the girls call Mama, that looked after them all these years isn’t too keen on them being taken away, and begins terrorizing the couple.

Ironically, despite being ostensibly a horror movie, “Mama” is more successful and compelling when it comes to the characters and the initial premise than it is when it turns up the scares. The traditional trappings and beats of other ghost and haunted house movies are frequently hit, so there is a been-there-done-that vibe that has to be overcome. While director Andres Muschietti (adapting his own short film) doesn’t have a grasp on suspense like the best horror directors out there, he has verve to carry out these sequences to creepy enough effect, and conceives of a few creative bits. The one that stood out the most was a sly camera trick where it appears as if the two sisters are playing with a blanket, only for us to see the uncle’s girlfriend, Annabel, and the other sister in the opposite room.

Unfortunately, these scares are rather spaciously spread apart, which leaves some sections of the movie hanging with dead air. But thankfully, the acting and character development is uncharacteristically above average for a horror picture. The actresses playing sisters Victoria and Lilly, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse respectively, do a superb job of portraying both the feral and sweet sides of these girls. Their first appearance after the five-year gap is arguably scarier than any of Mama’s ghostly tricks, primarily due to the convincingly wild and animalistic acting on the part of these two girls. It also helps that the Oscar nominated Jessica Chastain is playing Annabel. Annabel’s contentious relationship with the girls and her unease about being shoved into a mother role she didn’t ask for provides a compelling backbone to latch onto. Annabel could have easily been unlikable and annoying in the hands of a lesser actress, but Chastain is able to walk that fine line by absolutely selling her character’s transformation.

While the core plot dynamics are solid, Muschietti is unsteady when it comes to exploring Mama herself. There are points where it seems like he did not know how to incorporate some background details or a necessary character action, so he awkwardly shoehorns in unexplained visions for an exposition dump. And when the plot arrives at its conclusion, the ideas behind this end point are certainly unique, although the execution could have been refined. The special effects become overly elaborate, and the tone shifts suddenly from out-and-out horror to something closer to one of del Toro’s dark fantasies. Had the presence of these fantasy elements been emphasized previously rather than rely on the usual ghost movie scares, this shift would have felt more natural.

Because of these deficiencies, I would not exactly call “Mama” a particularly good horror movie. With that said, I greatly appreciated Muschietti’s ability to create well-developed characters (a rarity in this genre) and inject some creativity even amid the more familiar parts. I would like to see what he could do in a future film, perhaps taking more time to refine the screenplay, since it looks like he has the talent to pull off something more noteworthy. “Mama” is not exactly a smash debut for the man, though it shows glimmers of promise for what he could possibly achieve, which is more than I can say for the hacks typically hired to churn out a fast and cheap studio horror movie.

2.5/4