Mama (2013)

mama_1Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry, David Fox, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Christopher Marren

Directed by Andrés Muschietti

Expectations: Moderate.

On the general scale:
twohalfstar

On the B-movie scale:
threestar


If I were to judge movies solely on how much they entertained me, then Mama would rank pretty high. Not at the level of a favorite, or even a great experience, but one that simply does its job and delivers the fun supernatural thrills I’m looking for in a ghost story. The plot isn’t all that hard to figure out if you’ve seen any previous ghost story, but the creepy tactics it uses to sell itself were more than enough to win me over. I rarely get scared anymore during these kinds of films, but even after I had turned the lights back on after the movie I was still twisting my head to look behind me, convinced that Mama was there to swallow my soul.

The film opens during the 2008 financial crisis that swept the US, and one man affected by it has snapped. He kills his wife and drives away on icy, dangerous roads with his two young daughters. Their car goes over an embankment, but they survive and seek refuge in an old cabin in the woods. He clearly isn’t a horror movie fan, as you know as well as I do that you should generally turn around if you encounter a creepy old cabin in the middle of nowhere. Ah, but if they did, we wouldn’t have a film! From here, the story goes into an unexpected but fun direction, but I will say no more. In a film that hits a lot of the same notes as many other ghost stories, you need to know the least amount possible so that the film is able to play with all the cards in its deck.

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Lawless (2012)

lawless_1Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, Chris McGarry, Tim Tolin, Gary Oldman, Lew Temple, Marcus Hester

Directed by John Hillcoat

Expectations: Low.

onestar


There is such a thing as “too star-studded.” I’m sure on paper Lawless looked like a sure-fire winner. With a cast like this how could it fail? Apparently, it can fail in numerous ways! It’s a shame because a lot of the production design is well-realized, and the locations look great. Director John Hillcoat’s camera often finds a nice image to linger on, the only problem is that the majority of these images aren’t artistically deep or resonant to the overall film, they’re the wide establishing shots. Lawless is the cinematic equivalent to one of my friend’s favorite Raymond Chandler lines (from the novel The High Window), “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

The story that Lawless tells is apparently based on the true story of three outlaw, moonshinin’ brothers in Franklin County, Virginia. Like all outlaw stories, they start small and their business gets increasingly bigger over the course of the film. Of course, there’s a detective gunning for the brothers’ business (played by Guy Pearce), but Pearce’s guide for the character must have been Jeffrey Combs in The Frighteners because this dude is like a goddamn comic book villain. Anyway, they go back and forth throughout, and every once in a while Gary Oldman comes in to look badass.

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The Help (2011)

Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Anna Camp, Chris Lowell, Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek, Aunjanue Ellis, Mary Steenburgen

Directed by Tate Taylor

Expectations: Low. I’m watching this only because I loved Jessica Chastain’s work in Take Shelter.


The Help is a film I had no interest in seeing upon release. As soon as I heard it was set in the 1960s South and revolved around “the colored help” I went into a tirade about how Hollywood loves to make movies about the serving black person. This one’s supposed to be OK because it’s against the backdrop of civil rights and we’re supposed to get uplifted by the end, as things have gotten so much better for our characters. Pah-leese. But then I saw Take Shelter and immediately became intrigued to see Jessica Chastain work her acting magic in whatever she was in. My significant other was going to watch this one anyway, so I decided to stick around and see what all the fuss was about.

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Take Shelter (2011)

Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Natasha Randall, Ron Kennard, Scott Knisley, Robert Longstreet

Directed by Jeff Nichols

Expectations: Low, as I know nothing about this other than it’s about obsession, which is a subject I have an obsession with.


Take Shelter is a film I saw out of circumstance instead of desire. I happened to get off work a few hours early and decided to finally check out the hype surrounding Drive. Only problem was that Drive was only playing later in the day and I had about two hours to kill. This led me to check out Take Shelter in the meantime, as I had heard good things, and if there’s one constant theme I enjoy, it’s filmed obsession. I’m really glad this worked out the way it did, as Take Shelter is one of the best films I’ve seen all year.

Take Shelter focuses on Curtis (Michael Shannon) and how his dreams of a coming storm slowly begin to break down his life. He does his best to keep it all under wraps from his wife (Jessica Chastain) and his deaf daughter, but when his obsession over the nightly apocalyptic dreams starts to affect reality, it’s pretty hard not to notice. This is one that works really well not knowing much about it, so I’ll refrain from any more specifics.

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The Tree of Life (2011)

This collage poster is such a true representation of this film.

Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan

Directed by Terrence Malick

Expectations: Low. I don’t consider myself a Malick fan. I hated The Thin Red Line so much that it took fourteen years to even consider watching another of his films.


Within the first few minutes of The Tree of Life, I knew exactly how I’d feel about it when I arrived at the ending. I’ve only seen one Malick film prior to this, The Thin Red Line, and I thought it was an unintelligible mess. I was a teenager on a full diet of Hong Kong action films though, so lately I’ve thought that a re-watch as a thoughtful adult would reveal a better film. Cue the release of Malick’s latest film The Tree of Life, allowing me to give him another shot without the pain of re-watching something I previously despised. I knew I was in for a bad ride though, when only a few minutes into the film I got the same, confused feeling I had all those years ago in a cinema watching The Thin Red Line, wondering how the images on-screen were supposed to coalesce into meaning.

The Tree of Life‘s plot isn’t really one to bang out into a single paragraph at first glance, but on reflection there isn’t much of a plot. There’s also no real scenes in the classic sense. Or dialogue. The Tree of Life is probably the most high-profile experimental film of all time. It all opens with the death of Brad Pitt & Jessica Chastain’s kid, one of their three boys. Which one we don’t know, or if we do, I missed it. We then connect with Sean Penn, another of their children, now all grown up. Penn thinks back to his childhood and before you know it, we’re watching a nearly fifteen minute sequence depicting the creation of the universe before we jump into the real film at Penn’s character’s birth.

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