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Entries in zero dark thirty (2)

Friday
Jan182013

Mama

If it’s January, that can mean only one thing: movie studios are dumping whatever crap they have sitting around into theaters. Every year, during a time when the general population is optimistically looking forward to making the next 365 days better than the last, movie studios do their part, albeit in a small way, to prevent that from happening. This week, we have Mama, a film where the most appropriate describing adjective is “stupid.” I suppose for a January release, it’s not half bad, particularly if compared to last year’s genre offering, The Devil Inside, but such praise is faint. Mama is still ridiculous, played out and, worst of all, not scary.

The film stars Jessica Chastain (also in this month’s Zero Dark Thirty, a film much more worthy of your time) as Annabel. She’s a rocker who is in a serious relationship with Lucas, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Five years ago, his twin brother went on a killing spree that culminated in the death of his sister-in-law and kidnapping of his two young nieces. However, on his dash out of state in a car with an ironic vanity plate that reads “N1 DAD,” he spins out of control and they disappear from the public. After a desperate search, Lucas stumbles upon the two girls, Victoria, played by Megan Charpentier, and Lilly, played by Isabelle Nelisse, but his brother is nowhere to be seen. He eventually gains custody of the girls and takes them home after a much needed psychiatric evaluation, due to the imaginary friend the girls developed while stuck in the wild they call Mama. Eventually, weird things start happening around the house and Annabel and Lucas start to wonder if Mama is actually something more than an imaginary friend.

And of course she is. Any question regarding the validity of such supernatural claims are quickly put to rest when Mama presents herself within the first five to ten minutes, before the title card even pops up. The best horror movies keep you guessing and hide its monster, allowing your brain to concoct whatever terrible creature it can. Mama shows its cards way too early. Despite being partly veiled by shadows or shown in silhouette early on, the basic idea of the creature is put in place too early, effectively crushing any build the movie could have had otherwise. To make matters worse, when you finally do get a good look at her, she’s anything but scary and, if we’re being totally honest, looks like Gollum with long, flowing hair and Down syndrome.

For this reason and many others, Mama fails to elicit a sense of dread, much less maintain it like the best horror movies do, like last year’s bone-chiller, Sinister. At its most effective, Mama is unsettling, not because it’s scary, but because, if you know your horror movies enough to predict them, that a loud jump scare is right around the corner. Even if you aren’t a horror movie connoisseur and aren’t privy to the workings of horror movie scares going in, you will be when you come out. Mama picks one tactic and then uses it over and over and over again, ad nauseam. If you don’t figure out the ending beforehand (which you may not given that certain scenes make zero sense in the context of the story), you’ll have nevertheless mapped out the path to it. That’s how utterly clumsy and predictable this movie is.

The most enjoyment one could gather from watching Mama comes from laughing at the sheer silliness of it all, like when the two girls are found and have mentally and physically transitioned into comical spider-like creatures. Additionally, spotting contradictory dialogue exchanges becomes a rather fun game after some time. One standout example comes during a scene when an extraneous side character claims to not be religious and not know much about the afterlife or the supernatural, directly before explaining in great detail the reasoning and motivations behind the persistent ghost. Expository dialogue is looked down upon and for good reason—it’s usually forced in because the filmmakers/screenwriters couldn’t figure out a way to properly convey the story in a less direct and more meaningful way—but I’ve never seen it appear so bluntly and hypocritically.

Mama is a mess. It benefits from having some decent performances, most notably from the talented Jessica Chastain, but even a talented actress such as her can only do so much with such thin characters. With little to move the plot along aside from time-filler dream sequences (some of which actually have additional dream layers within them, like a mini Inception), Mama quickly becomes stagnant and tiresome.

Mama receives 1/5

Friday
Jan112013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, regardless of its quality, was going to be greeted with multiple awards nominations. It had a great cast headlined by the underappreciated Jessica Chastain, a director perhaps most famous for her Oscar win for 2008’s The Hurt Locker and it’s about a recent true story, a pivotal moment in our nation’s history when we took out the man who harmed us on 9/11, Osama Bin Laden. Awards voters and movie critics eat things like that up, but like many of this year’s movies, Zero Dark Thirty fails to resonate. It’s too long to thrill, too dry to grab attention and it’s practically emotionless, aside from one final scene that doesn’t fit in with what is essentially a clinical procedural of the events that led to Bin Laden’s death. From the first torture scene where a tiny bit of information is gathered to the final confrontation, Zero Dark Thirty is strict in its structure. The events as played out in the film are still fascinating as we watch that tiny bit of information snowball into something bigger and bigger, but it doesn’t hit any profound sentiment like The Hurt Locker did, or even take sides on the bigger issues as a whole. It simply moves along, showing you how the events (likely) played out and then it ends and you’re no better or worse for it.

Still, as far as emotionally empty and narratively bland procedurals go, Zero Dark Thirty is as good as they come and, in a way, the fact that it doesn’t take sides on key issues like torture works to its advantage. Although I’ve heard arguments from both sides, some even going so far as to say the film actually promotes torture (a somewhat reasonable conclusion to make given that the excessive and humiliating torture that poor man receives at the beginning of the movie eventually leads to a successful mission of killing Bin Laden), it’s fairly neutral. For example, it doesn’t treat torture as something evil or good, but rather simply as something that was used by our government to extract information. It shows it because it happened, not because it’s trying to make a statement on it.

But then again, that’s why Zero Dark Thirty comes off so much like a procedural. It rarely, if ever, has anything to say regarding, well, anything. It doesn’t touch on the fear that gripped our nation after the attacks. It ignores the high running emotions that led us to war in the first place. It doesn’t talk about the effects this dangerous search had on those running it. Although I’m sure the plans were carried out with a high degree of professionalism in the real world, emotional ambiguity doesn’t make for a very good movie. The Hurt Locker, for instance, was about the effects of war on the soldiers who fight it. It was about their trauma, their fear and even their familiarity with it, to the point where some felt more comfortable with a gun overseas than in a time of peace on their homeland. Zero Dark Thirty has none of that.

If it’s about anything, it’s about obsession, the need to right the wrong. Chastain, playing Maya, the woman in relentless pursuit of the man who spilled innocent American blood, is fantastic in the role and manages to pull off some tense dialogue driven scenes that ramp up her character’s emotions, even if ours remain distant. Where Zero Dark Thirty works, though, despite Chastain’s excellent performance, isn’t in the character arcs, but rather in the narrative trajectory that begins with that aforementioned interrogation of a low level Al Qaeda subordinate and ends with a spellbinding interpretation of the Navy SEALs operation that took Bin Laden out.

Regardless of its procedural approach, it works because it’s not exploitative. It doesn’t show behind-the-scenes “what ifs” of what Bin Laden may have been doing. Similarly, not once does the film feel like a piece of propaganda the way this year’s Act of Valor did. It’s not trying to get anyone to join the armed forces or even make you feel a certain way. It’s simply showing you something that happened and you take it as it is. The strength of such conviction is evident, but then again, so is the weakness. For a movie that dramatizes the death of an undeniably evil man who killed innocent people, leading to one of the very few times everybody in America stood together as one, there needed to be more of an audience connection. The emotion, both onscreen and within ourselves, should have resonated, but instead you leave the movie with an empty feeling, knowing full well the movie you saw was good, but wanting something more. Zero Dark Thirty is bound to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars and though I will certainly defend it as a good movie, I’ll argue against that inevitable decision.

Zero Dark Thirty receives 3.5/5