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.

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (2012), directed by Kathryn Bigelow

I went into Zero Dark Thirty thinking that there was not a hope in hell it could live up to the hype.

I didn’t even understand the hype, but then again I didn’t fall head over heals for The Hurt Locker. Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was great, but not the greatest movie ever made, as some seemed to consider it (I’m long overdue for a revisit, for the record). Nor did I think a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden could be something I would find any particular interest in. Ra Ra America turns me off.

But I should have known Bigelow is better than that.

Zero Dark Thirty isn’t Ra Ra America, and it isn’t The Hurt Locker, a film easily as much action as war drama, as well as an explosive (excuse the pun) character study.

What it is is a meticulously crafted, terse, tense procedural that is among the most thrilling two and a half hours you could ever expect in a cinema. It takes material I never thought could possibly be interesting to me, mainly because I’m so sick of hearing about it, and spins a yarn out of it that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.

Basically it pulled a United 93 on me.

A procedural, by its nature, usually says the most by not saying much at all. It shows how something happened, usually sticking to a basic “why” and avoiding passing any moral judgement on the events it depicts. Part of me feels like a procedural is a low form of filmmaking, akin more to an episode of CSI than a cinematic masterpiece. But dammit if the other part of me doesn’t love them.

I think I’m in part right, because they do seem to drift from memory. As much as I remember thoroughly enjoying United 93 I haven’t seen it since and barely remember the particulars of it. I don’t hear it mentioned in many greatest films of the decade lists, despite an immense amount of critical love when it came out.

Zero Dark Thirty might be headed for the same fate, but I hope not, because really, when we’re talking about movies, is there anything better than an immersive, thrillingly good time at the cinema?

And besides, I think it achieves more than that.

I’m avoiding talking about particulars of the film because it’s somehow better to go in knowing very little about it. And there’s not much to say, really. It’s a linear, straight-faced telling of the events that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It categorizes and reveals. It shows, it does not tell.

For the very reason that the movie seems so straight forward, Jessica Chastain’s performance is all the more notable. She is our only emotional context, our humanizing counterpoint for the historical events unfolding before us. We experience them with her, feel her frustration, take part in her obsession, sympathize with her loss of a part of that which makes her human.

Chastain pulls all this off in the spirit of the film. Her performance is never flashy. She has no big speeches or emotional meltdowns. She expresses all that she is going through in the way she carries herself, her expressions, the way she interacts with others. Her character changes considerably during the eight or so years the movie takes place over. Thanks to the performance those changes are subtle, but they are not lost and, in fact, they provide the humanizing context that makes the film work so well.

Okay, there’s been a lot of talk about the torture in the film, so I feel I should say something. I believe there is no issue here and to suggest that the film condones torture is ridiculous. This is a film that shows what happened. It doesn’t judge how it happened. And if it does at all, I think it does so in a way that recognizes the cost (personal, moral, human) of finding Bin Laden.

Just because a film shows something does not mean it condones it. Clearly this treatment of prisoners happened. And it helped lead to the ultimate conclusion. Fact. Should it have happened that way? Is torture an effective means of gaining information? That’s a judgement call that the film does not make. It recognizes the change that happened when Obama came in. It recognizes the shifting values of American foreign policy, of the attitudes immediately after 9/11 versus the attitudes after the dust settles. But it offers no opinion.

To suggest otherwise is ridiculous and shows a lack of understanding of the subtleties and intent of the movie.

This is a stellar bit of filmmaking. Many have said already, but the lack of an Oscar nomination for Kathryn Bigelow is horrendous. As much as I enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s heavy handed Hollywood approach has nothing on what Bigelow has managed to accomplish here. With such a light touch, or perhaps more accurately, an invisible touch, she has managed so much.

This is truly accomplished filmmaking and one hell of a great movie. It would have made my best of 2012 list without question.

Zero Dark Thirty is in cinemas now.


Lawless (2012), directed by John Hillcoat

I’ll tell you what, if ever there was a movie made for me it’s Lawless (well, and Drive). It’s got it all: Hill people. Bluegrass soundtrack. Fast cars and hooch running. A campy Guy Pearce law enforcement character. A screenplay by Nick Cave, a favourite musician of mine. A grunting Tom Hardy. Jessica Chastain doing anything at all, ever.

What could go wrong?

Well, certainly not everything. But some things.

I did have a good ole time watching Lawless but it never hit the campy, Bonnie and Clyde-type feel I think it was going for. Actually, I’m surprised the film even got made. I wouldn’t have thought there would be much call for a moonshining story. I mean, I’m interested, but then again I have a friend who moonshines and I play the banjo, so, you know.

Anyway, I had hoped that with Cave involved and the weird premise that the film would be a little off the wall. Pearce certainly is, with his shaved eyebrows and penchant for gloves, and the soundtrack has this great Cave take on hill music thing going on. On that level the film does revel in its hillbilly-ness.

But on the other level the story is pretty standard. And really, even having the weird law enforcement agent is nothing new. The film felt like an extended episode of Boardwalk Empire at times, in that regard. And then you have characters that sort of appear once in a while and then are put aside for awhile, like Gary Oldman’s Floyd Banner. Even Pearce, the nemesis, disappears for long stretches, which makes us care less about him.

Pacing is the primary issue. A film like this needs to be tight, because it really doesn’t have that much for the audience to grab on to other than the action and development of the story. It needs to move along like a bootlegger running from the law. And I think it really could have benefitted by working more with the Hardy versus Pearce aspect.

Some of the time-passing moments are awkward and it has some sections that meander like the lazy sections of the Mississippi River rolling by the cotton fields. Or something like that. There’s far too many characters to keep track of. Too many things happen that aren’t directly related to one another. It’s just kind of muddle.

Here’s the thing, if a film is going to be a tight, action, story-driven movie then it needs to keep things simple. One creepy lawman. The brothers as a tight unit. One love story. A tight timeline. A definitive finale. Make it the best Hollywood film it can be.

Or it needs to go the other way and totally mix things up. It needs to take itself less seriously, get a little out there, drink some ‘shine and let loose. Maybe go for a Terrence Malick-type thing, but only if you let him get drunk with Malcolm Lowry and Hunter S. Thompson.

Lawless tries to be both and ends up neither. Which is really unfortunate because it started with a good idea and had the talent behind it to make it into something special. It’s a fun watch at times, and, in case I didn’t mention it, Jessica Chastain is in it, but it could have been so much more.

Lawless is in theatres now.