January. Everyone knows it is when the mediocre to the truly awful hobble off to die a quick death after beating each other senseless for a quick buck in the box office arena. When a film gets slated for release it is because there are no other contenders to fight for those dollars, or it won't survive any other time anyway.
After all, everyone with any sense is scrambling to see the Oscar nominees. So one approaches January movies with a mix of optimism and dread. Two genre-specific movies are being released this week. If you are a fan of horror or ultra-violent action flicks, the studios are expecting you to gravitate away from those Oscar-nominated and towards these unproven offerings.
The Last Stand is a "comeback" vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger directed by Korean auteur Jee-woon Kim in his first American film. Mama is produced by Guillermo Del Toro, offering a feature-length version of director Andres Muschietti's impressive terror-filled short of the same name, and stars box office and indie darling Jessica Chastain.
While both movies have their strengths, they both fall significantly short of filmgoers' expectations, and neither rise far above the usual January fare.
Mama is respectably creepy but uneven from the start, and ultimately unsatisfying and muddled. The Last Stand, which should be far more ashamed of itself, amounts to just so much NRA porn.
The film Mama starts off well enough. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays a husband who snaps, killing his wife and running away with his two small daughters, whom he intends to kill as well. The something or someone who (surprise! …not a spoiler as it's in the trailer) kills him instead, leaves his kids alone in a cabin to fend for themselves.
Five years later, they are discovered subsisting on cherries and bark, and placed with his (it is assumed, but not stated) twin brother, also played, the script allows, in true soap-opera fashion, by Coster-Waldau. His bass-playing, rock and roll girlfriend played by Chastain, sporting a black-dyed blunt cut, heavy mascara, and band tats, is expected to dutifully fall in as foster mom.
Did something unearthly come to live with them and these now creepy, grunting, feral kids? The rest of the movie seeks to answer that question and why. It too often stumbles into the world of cliches to maintain the arty European horror aesthetic that is clearly its inspiration and aspiration. Fans of Del Toro expecting something in line with the modern classics he directed, Cronos or The Devil's Backbone, might be vaguely satisfied at first but will find too little tension building and too little story evolving to place it in the same cinematic strata.
There has been a movement lately of A list actors taking on horror roles that offer more diversity to their filmography, and sometimes it pays off in a great fresh new take on an old ghost or murder story. The trouble is if a movie wants to play in the big pool with the big boys, it has to have enough water. By the inexplicable ending, this one dries up like a desiccated moth, many live ones of which are batting their creepy quivering wings on the camera, close up, throughout the film.
Chastain is Mama's brightest spot, usurping attention from the two surprisingly compelling child actors. She exposes her character's fears, showing us an arc from reticence to acceptance of motherhood. The audience is witness to her self-discovery, which keeps us rooting through scenes that were written more compellingly in ghost movies like The Woman in White, The Innocents and its remake, The Others.
Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones), whom I've loved as an actor since the great Danish thriller Nightwatch and the pre-vamp fad vamp show New Amsterdam, does his best with very little screen time, much of which is spent in thanklessly trite action. Too bad, because I still expect great things from him. It is Chastain who creates, in the audience, compassion and a desire to see them survive to become a family living in safety and love.
By the time the ending blasts onto the screen, we've been creeped but cliched out. What might have been a great twist is wasted. Back to the drawing board for all those involved. No harm, no foul. For a passible diversion and a bit of a scare, it will do. Is that worth $12? You decide.
Far more troubling, is the mind-numbingly violent bigotfest The Last Stand. This vehicle for Arnold Swartzenegger's comeback has him holding big guns and spouting one liners again, which he does with affable aplomb. To say that he is one of the better aspects of the movie is a more terrifying proposition than anything in Mama.
Director Kim Ji-woon's stylized take on a blood-soaked action-er has its charms. He uses lovely camera angles, inventive lighting and interestingly composed shots, especially during car chase scenes and showdowns in which he obviously wishes to evoke a topsy turvy '80s version of High Noon.
The script is so full of cliched dialogue, it made Cinema Siren want to start a petition to ban the lines "Let's DO this!" "You wanna play? Let's play!" and "Game ON!" from films in the future.
The representation of Latino and Latina characters is shockingly one-dimensional. The drug cartel jokes about border control, the reluctant deputy whines about getting involved, and the arc written for the female agent taken hostage will likely equally puzzle and piss off most women in the audience. I am going to ignore the fact that Forest Whitaker is in this film. I love him and always will, no matter what movies he inexplicably chooses to support with his monumental talent.
As to violence, it goes way too far. By the time the movie is over, the audience will feel like they've been through war. So many secondary characters get shot in the head, it's like we are all sitting in the back of Vince and Jules' brain splattered car in Pulp Fiction.
Most troubling is the violent extremes the film goes to, without any substantive reason. At one point, a large group of policemen get machine gunned to death. While censorship in movies is the last thing Cinema Siren supports, it is valid to ask why filmmakers feel it's OK to show a whole stationhouse full of policemen riddled by machine gun bullets. If children are still sacred in film, why are policemen the new and acceptable sacrificial lambs? We should perhaps question the necessity to use that particular circumstance as a plot device to manipulate the audience's sympathy.
This movie does gun lobbyists proud. There is even a gun-toting grandma who gets into the action. The audience laughed. Maybe you will, too. Maybe you don't mind a body count in the dozens, with blood splatter becoming as ubiquitous as the cliched one-liners. As for myself and any discerning movie fans, let me suggest there are less offensive flicks starring Scharzenegger on Netflix. This movie doesn't deserve your dollars.
This is Cinema Siren guiding you through a sea of celluloid. Listen. It's January. Pace yourselves. There will be plenty of great, empty-headed films waiting for you come Memorial Day. For now, either venture out to one of the great movies nominated for Oscars: Argo, Lincoln, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, or Zero Dark Thirty, or stay home, and see an old action classic.
There is plenty to keep you busy until the Oscars on Feb. 24. Until then, the less blood splatter and moth flutter, the happier I suspect you'll be.