Broken City (2013), directed by Allen Hughes

Mama (2013), directed by Andres Muschietti

In my effort to save money and to see more movies at the same time I did a double-shot cheap Tuesday night at one of our local theatres here.

So I thought, why not write a double-shot cheap review? Do you feel frugal and smart? Or just cheated? Exactly.

Plus, what better way to review two mostly forgettable, mediocre movies that have absolutely no relation to one another? Exactly.

First up for the night was Mama, a Canadian-Spanish horror/ghost movie, “presented” by Guillermo del Toro and staring everybody’s new favourite actor, Jessica Chastain.

Now when I see that a horror film is “presented” by Guillermo del Toro I prepare myself for something a little different, likely quite gothic, with some elements of fantasy. I’m thinking Splice, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Orphanage (which I must admit, I have not seen).

Dead on (pun intended). While it has its share of conventional horror moments (weird noises in the house, faces in mirrors, “it was just a dream” moments), Mama also has enough creativity behind it that it not only comes across as scary, but also compelling.

It’s kind of a weird mix, to be honest. While on one hand there’s this really rather intriguing story of a (SPOILERS) long-dead escaped mental patient still searching for the baby she stole, and of two little girls she takes in and raises, there’s also this side where they have to visit an archive at some point, and consult an expert, and have the woman hear something weird and creep around the house until something scares her and us.

Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The plot is far too complicated. Characters go off to do their own thing and are forgotten about for long periods of time. There’s so many agendas by so many characters it’s hard to care about all of them. Some of them are quickly tossed aside, making me wonder why they were needed in the first place. Some of the “gotcha!” scares are a little much and there’s too many of them.

But the ghost, the horror part of the film, is genuinely creative and well wrought. It’s all CGI but it works really well and the design of the ghost is rather unique and very effective. I had the old chill down the spine feeling on more than one occasion.

The gothic atmosphere also works well and gives the material a grandiosity modern horror films tend to reject (thank you Paranormal Activity). I mean, how many cliff-top ghost story finales do you see anymore? It lost me at the end with the butterfly finale and us somehow being asked to see it as a beautiful compromise that the ghost is going to drag a little girl away to death (presumably). Didn’t buy it.

But in general, Mama is a unique and well made ghost story.

Skipping merrily to the other end of the cinema, I sat down for Broken City just as it started.

Broken City was marketed as an action film, complete with hip-hop soundtrack, but it’s actually a political thriller, lots of talking with some occasional bits of action.

This one is getting panned, but you know what? I didn’t mind it. Sort of like Mama, I thought it was decidedly OK but with some definite positives (that’s my only way to tie these two films together).

You’ve got Wahlberg doing his Wahlberg thing (which I like), you’ve got Russell Crowe playing a character with a personality (which was a nice change from Les Miz), you’ve got BC boy Barry Pepper (if you want to see me embarrassed ask me about the time I met Barry Pepper) and you’ve got an urban political plot with ins and outs and backstabbings all round.

The Hughes Brothers have a way of making movies that under no reasonable reasoning should work, but that I can’t help but like. I still haven’t quite put my finger on why. I’m a From Hell fan. Now that’s out there in the world. I also thought The Book of Eli was an entirely decent movie.

I had the same reaction to Broken City. Nothing especially interesting was going on, but through competent directing and engaging performances it drew me in. I enjoyed watching it, wanted to know how it played out. That’s not what I would call a rave review, but maybe this is a case of exceeding low expectations.

(Huge Spoiler) The worst part for me was seeing Coach Taylor all shot up. It got personal at that point.

The film is not to be taken seriously. I don’t see it as an accurate representation of urban municipal politics or as a relevant voice against corrupt government. It doesn’t reach anything nearly that lofty. But as a political thriller with more than a few entertaining twists and turns, it works, to a point.

So there you go, my cheap Tuesday, cheap thrills, movie night. I’ll save intellectual musings for films worth it. If you want thoughtless entertainment, these are two viable options. Especially for half price.

Mama and Broken City are in cinemas now.

Argo

Argo (2012), directed by Ben Affleck

I still find it a bit weird to write “directed by Ben Affleck.” I shouldn’t, I mean, the man is a director now, this is his third feature after all and he’s getting more praise behind the camera than he ever got in front of it. But I grew up in a different era, an era where Affleck starred in such movies as Daredevil and Jersey Girl. An era where he had sexual relations with Jimmy Kimmel.

He was, let’s face it, a bit of a joke. Whether it was deserved or not, the man was a punch line.

Well, now he’s a serious player in the biz (do they still call it that?) and really impressing people with his new life as Serious Movie Director. Gone Baby Gone sort of took everyone by surprise. The Town confirmed Affleck as a talent. And now Argo is in the centre of any early Oscar talk you can find.

Is the praise deserved? Yes and no, in my humble, obnoxious opinion.

First, the movie. I would have to say that Argo is the one of the most competently directed¬† movies I have seen all year. That might sound like a “garden variety” type comment, but I mean it in a good way. Affleck isn’t a flashy director, and I admire that. He is a movie-maker, and an extremely talented one.

In terms of pacing, editing, composition and pretty much any other technical or storytelling related aspect of moviemaking, Argo is excellent. It balances multiple types of movies in one, has a serious, thriller-type side, but also a fun, Hollywood looks at Hollywood side, and blends it all together seamlessly and without one ever detracting from the other.

The movie flows well. It makes sense. It never gets lost or meanders. It’s gripping to watch, is full of great, but never flashy, performances and does exactly what it sets out to do.

Now, you may be predicting this is all leading to a big “but.” I wish it wasn’t. I hate being that guy sometimes. I want to be on the Affleck bandwagon without any holding back. I really do. But I just can’t.

With Argo I have the same problem I had with Affleck’s other two films. It’s good, but I wanted more. I think Affleck is a great storyteller, but I think he’s a great surface-level storyteller. And I want more.

He’s an expert at telling what happen, who was involved, how it was important and why we should care. His films are seamless, and that’s a compliment. Those are all great things to be an expert at. It’s really refreshing to see these days. But his films still leave me feeling like something was missed.

I think it’s depth. I never feel like I really relate to or care that much about his characters. And that might not be a problem except I feel like Affleck really, really wants me to care about his characters. And I want to care about his characters. Characters are the most important part of a movie to me.

Take his character, Tony Mendez, in Argo, for instance. Tony is an expert at what he does, he’s a great CIA man and he is compelling to watch operate. But we never really get to know him. In drips and drabs we find out he is separated from his wife and has a son he doesn’t often see. He drinks too much and has obviously sacrificed his personal life for his professional one.

But that’s as far as it goes.

It feels like this macho, we don’t talk about our feelings approach to emotion. And sure, the character might just be like that, but it doesn’t mean Affleck as a director needs to take that approach too. There’s a scene where Alan Arkin’s character, Lester Siegel, talks to Mendez about their personal lives. They exchange a few short sentences about their children. Mendez tells Siegel his situation. Siegel says “kids need their mother.” And that’s it.

I don’t need a big speech or anything, and I do believe in showing over telling, but I really wanted to know more about these characters. I wanted them to seem more like people to me than a series of hard-life staples. I found it hard to relate to Mendez, or even the hostages. I felt like I had said “how’s it going?” and they said “yeah, yeah, fine, not bad. I’ve been better, but, you know?” and then we didn’t talk about it anymore.

For any other movie I would let this all slide. Maybe I’m being unfair. But I hope I’m being like that university professor who gives his best student a B mark for a paper he would have given anyone else an A. I know Affleck can do better. He has all the essentials, now he just needs to dig a little deeper. For now he gets a B. Plus.

This is perhaps an unfair review, as movies should be judge for what they are, not what they are not, but this is honestly how I feel. But listen, these are minor detractions from what is otherwise an excellent movie. Argo is one of the most riveting tales I have seen unfold on screen lately. It’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s a real movie lover’s movie.

I just wanted more.

Argo is in theatres now.