Friday, January 25, 2013

THE LAST STAND Infuses Old-School Action With New-School Excitement


- Those who are predisposed not to like Arnold Schwarzenegger's particular brand of pumped-up action movies, well ... they may still get a kick out of THE LAST STAND. The movie is, after all, the American debut of acclaimed Korean director Kim Jee-Woon (I Saw The Devil). And Jee-Woon makes this much more than just a nostalgia trip. This is fresh, funny, slick, exciting, over-the-top filmmaking. This is a potent mix of Asian extreme cinema with good old-fashioned American badassery. On that note, if you did grow up with Arnold, if you do regard him as an action icon, and if you are eagerly awaiting that icon's return to a starring role - well, The Last Stand is a fantastic return to film for the former governor of California. The Last Stand plays perfectly to Arnold's strengths - giving him some great one-liners, some great hard-hitting action, and a story that plays up the actor's iconic, larger-than-life status. The film fully acknowledges Arnold's advancing age - in fact, it has a lot of fun with the concept. But it also shows you why Arnold still kicks ass - it positions him as a throwback and a hardass. Sure, he's older and a bit worse for wear - but come on ... when a sadistic crime lord is heading to your town to lay waste to it, en route to the border - is there anyone else you'd want as your last line of defense? Old-school action movie fans know the answer - and if you have doubts, then The Last Stand will put them to rest.

In The Last Stand, Arnold plays Ray Owens, an ex-LAPD cop who, after some stuff went down in LA, decides to ditch the big city for the quiet life of a small-town sheriff. And so, in a sleepy Arizona border town, Owens serves as the way-overqualified long arm of the law, heading up a barely-qualified staff of deputes. However, Owens and his staff have to step it up when Gabriel Cortez - a dangerous Mexican drug lord - escapes federal custody, steals a souped-up experimental car, and makes a dash for the border - eluding the FBI and local cops at every turn. Cortez appears to be home free and on his way to freedom. Except, of course, for the fact that Owens, his team, and a town full of gun-toting, half-crazy sons-of-bitches still stand in his way - a challenge that Cortez, surely, did not anticipate.

At first glance, the movie's obvious affection for this town full of gun-nuts might come off as a little disquieting, especially in the wake of recent tragedies. But I think there is a clear element of satire here - a streak of absurdist humor that calls attention to the fact that, hey, this is the kind of thing that could *only* happen in the hyper-reality of the movies. On that note, The Last Stand is an incredibly funny movie - this is a film that is winking at the audience the entire way through. It's incredibly self-aware, and in the way it does its best to play to the audience. It's the kind of film that goes for the crazy moments, the applause-worthy one-liners, and that completely understands that, yes, it is an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie - no apologies - and it has a lot of fun reminding us what that means. And yet, it also tweaks the formula - modernizing it for today's more savvy audiences.

And so even though in some ways this is a throwback (my god, an action movie where you can actually follow the action!), it also is super-slick and even a bit dangerous. Kim Jee-Woon infuses the film with the kineticism and style of post-modernist extreme cinema - the kind that's been popularized in Korea thanks to guys like Jee-Woon and Oldboy's Chan Wook-Park, and here in the US thanks to Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and their ilk. Jee-Woon totally gets what we love about old-school action flicks, and gives those qualities a shiny polish of sly self-awareness. But this isn't just a purely silly movie. It's often laugh-out-loud funny, with great gags, and a game cast with plenty of comic chops (Johnny Knoxville, Louis Guzman). But this is also a movie that hits the "awesome" mark over and over again. Everything here is just, well ... satisfying. The story expertly builds and builds until we're chomping at the bit for the climactic showdown. The action hits hard and with impact - visceral gun battles, breakneck car chases, and even a classic fist fight. Point being: even though there's plenty of humor, the movie also brings the pain when need be - and does so in classic, audience-pleasing style. Suffice it to say, it's been a long time since I was so purely and unabashedly rooting for an action film's hero to kick ass and save the day.

 And of course, our heroes are nothing without good villains. And The Last Stand has a very good villain in douchey slimebucket Cortez, played with aplomb by Eduardo Noriega. But even better is the great Peter Stormare as Cortez's advance man, the guy who's made it his personal mission to make Schwarzenegger's town Cortez's gateway to the border. I'm not quite sure what Stormare is going for here (his accent is all over the map), but there's no doubt that he cranks it up to eleven and goes full-on crazy in this film. So yeah, Stormare vs. Arnold feels like an epic battle of iconic hero vs. iconic villain. All that's missing is a wood-chipper. On the side of the angels, there's Knoxville - whose role is nowhere near as substantial as the marketing would have you believe. And that's cool. He's great as a funny supporting character - a local one-man militia who's seemingly been preparing for this criminal invasion his whole life. Guzman - come on, he rules it. As a pudgy, lazy lawman confronted with his first real test of mettle ... he nails it. And then there's Forest Whitaker - another dude who is perfect for the movie's over-the-top aesthetic. As the lead FBI agent tracking Cortez, Whitaker's trademark brand of crazy adds to the movie's pulpy, grindhouse vibe. Hell, there's even a pretty good love story in the mix, as a by-the-book deputy finds herself having to team with her sad-sack ex-boyfriend - a regular in the drunk tank - who's got to rediscover his long-lost mojo in the fight to save the town. Oh, and Harry Dean Stanton has an awesome cameo as an off-his-rocker farmer.

And as for Arnold - sure, maybe he's a bit rough around the edges after a long acting hiatus, but overall he is in fine form here. Nobody else delivers those one-liners with quite the same snap. And hey, he's having fun here. This isn't him coming back and trying to be the Arnold of old. This is him returning as the grizzled, old-school vet who might be a step slow but can still deliver a knockout right hand. This is vintage Arnold, but it's also an encouraging sign that the man's comeback won't just be about him acting like he's still a young man.

On Kim Jee-Woon ... this is most definitely a talent to watch. The guy has a talent for crafting striking, vivid imagery and visual motifs, but also has a knack for crazy-ass action in which you feel every smash, hit, and cut. It's exciting to see him go to work here, bringing together a variety of influences to create an action film that pays homage to what's come beforem but that also feels new and different.

I came out of The Last Stand feeling, well, pumped-up. Here was an exciting blend of old-school action with new-school cinema, that was both a vintage entry in the Ah-nold cannon and something new and different and exciting. The movie crackled with gorgeous visuals and eye-popping action, and the narrative was refreshingly simple-yet-effective. Fans of classic action should run to check this out, as should fans of cutting-edge filmmaking. Arnold is back, yes - but he's brought some exciting new blood with him for his return.

My Grade: B+

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Final Farewell to FRINGE: Thoughts From The Other Side

 A Fond Farewell to FRINGE.

- Back in 2002, The X-Files came to an end, and it felt like the end of an era. I had watched the show since it started in 1993 (I was 10 years old), and I was in college when it ended (I was 20). I could point to a variety of influences that had instilled in me a love for the fantastic, for the mind-expanding, for the weird - but The X-Files would be first and foremost. By the time it was over, I was a bonafide sci-fi geek - and just about everything else on TV at the time seemed tame, boring, and small-minded in comparison. Of course, little did I realize, at the time, that we were on the verge of a new TV renaissance. Thanks to the influence of the grittier, more mature shows on cable TV, and the risks being taken by networks to adapt to a changing, more fragmented audience, we suddenly found ourselves in a new Golden Age of daring, rich, compelling TV. In 2004, Lost premiered, and there it was - the next X-Files - the next sci-fi cult TV phenomenon. Lost put JJ Abrams on the map. It brought a new sense of scale and scope to sci-fi TV. It bombarded the viewer not just with intriguing mysteries, but also with a cast of incredibly interesting characters. Over the years, Lost lost its way a bit, and the time was ripe in 2008 for a new sci-fi series to swoop in and steal some of Lost's buzz. Of course, this new show would also come from producer JJ Abrams, and it would debut with the same sort of excitement and buzz that Lost did years earlier. This was to be the next big thing, the next X-Files, the next must-watch show. This was FRINGE.

FRINGE was one of the first big new shows that I followed after moving to LA in 2005. True, it didn't premiere until 2008, but long before that, I had my eyes on it. I remember getting a hold of the pilot script when it first surfaced. I printed it at work and had a giddy smile on my face - I walked past one of the few co-workers who I thought might share my excitement over it, and proclaimed: "I've got it. The new JJ Abrams pilot. Fringe!" I eagerly paged through the pilot, discovering a tense, ambitious story about a mad scientist freed from a mental ward - reunited with his con-man son in order to help save the world. Joined by a stony FBI Agent, the trio investigated super-science phenomena while uncovering a deeper mystery at the heart of it all. This was great stuff. But one thought kept rolling through my mind: "man, whoever they get to play this mad-scientist guy ... he had better be *good.*"

As it turned out, John Noble was more than good as Dr. Walter Bishop - he was awesome. From Episode 1 of Fringe, I loved Noble's portrayal of a broken man, a science genius with a fractured psyche who had risked his sanity - and the world's safety - to save his son long ago. Even when I had my doubts about Fringe in its early episodes - when I questioned Anna Torv as FBI agent Olivia Dunham, when I wondered if the show was just a sleek would-be X-Files, when I bemoaned the fact that the "monsters-of-the-week" often felt half-heartedly conceived - the thing that always kept me coming back, the reason why I never for a moment considered dropping the show, was John Noble as Walter Bishop.

After five years and countless memorable moments, I think it's time to officially place Dr. Bishop in the category of all-time great, iconic sci-fi characters. Move over Mulder, Scully, Sawyer, and Spock - and make room for the good doctor in all his whacked-out glory. John Noble may have consistently, inexplicably gotten overlooked by the Emmys year after year, but what he did as Walter was nothing short of award-worthy. He crafted a character who was at times side-splittingly funny, but who could also be absolutely terrifying. Walter Bishop could make you laugh, make you shudder, and break your heart in the span of minutes. In middle-age, Walter could come across as a goofy grandfather - an eccentric, good-natured man who loved strawberry milkshakes, Red Vines, fart jokes, and the occasional drug-fueled trip. But his goofiness is also what made him a hero both lovable and tragic. In his youth, Bishop was a hard man - a man of science, a man of hubris, a man who never let morality get in the way of his quest for knowledge. Along with his partner, William Bell (played by Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy), Walter started a program in which he experimented on young children with mind and body-altering chemical compounds - the Cortexifan trials. He developed all sorts of weaponizable things for the government - interested more so with the science behind them than the dangerous implications of their existence. But Walter's ultimate test came when his young son Peter died. Desperate for a way to get his son back, Walter devised a plan to cross-over to another, parallel universe. He found his own doppelganger, and that of his son. He stole the other Peter and brought him back to our world - in doing so, forever damaging the structural integrity of both worlds. Devastated by what he'd done, Walter ended up experimenting on his own brain. He fractured his own mind - robbing himself of his own steely intelligence and becoming mad in the process. And so Fringe, in which we join Walter - not just on his journey to repair his relationship with his son, but to repair the very world he helped to damage - became the epic story of Walter Bishop's redemption.

And that ... that is what made FRINGE such a great show. Through all of the strange twists and turns that its narrative took, it was always held together by a common thematic underpinning. So many of the great shows lost their way over time because they strayed from their central themes, deciding suddenly that the show was *actually* about something entirely different than what was originally intended. But Fringe never went off the rails in that way, because Noble as Bishop was so sturdy an anchor.

John Noble did some of the best acting I've ever seen on Fringe. His "Walterisms," were classic - nonsensical rants of righteous anger ("Potassium Bromate! Do you know what you're putting into our bodies? Death! Delicious, STRAWWWBERRY-flavored death!"), and absurdist asides that would have me rolling with laughter. But Noble's face was also just a well of emotion - sadness, determination, fear, love - the man could do it all. When he played his more with-it alternate from Earth 2, we saw a glimpse of the more tyrannical "Walter That Was." But "our" Walter was a thunderstorm of humor, heart, and emotion - and Noble never failed to nail it.

Of course, this was also Anna Torv's show. Torv was justifiably singled out as a weak link when the show began. As damaged, determined agent Olivian Dunham, Torv often came off as stilted and bland in those early episodes. But she got better. Way better. And over time, Agent Dunham became one of the best and most badass characters on TV - a kickass woman who was smart, fearless, and a crack shot. Over the last few years, there's been a lot of talk about the portrayal of women in TV and film, and the need for strong female characters who aren't just window dressing. Olivia became Exhibit A for how to do a great, strong, legitimately badass female character on television. And Anna Torv, man, she just kept surprising me. When she was asked to play her own alternate (dubbed "Fauxlivia" by fans), she stepped up to the challenge with aplomb. The Earth 2 Olivia shared some of the same traits as her Earth 1 counterpart, but was less restrained - cockier, less empathetic, operating with swagger and a smile. The show kept throwing crazy plot points at Torv, and each time she rose to the occasion. Against all odds, she pulled off a storyline in which Olivia was possessed by the spirit of Nimoy's William Bell, and made it work. In Season 5, she shifted her character to become more subdued, more maternal. Through it all, she made Agent Dunham into one of the absolute best characters on TV. Anna Torv made me a believer.

Joshua Jackson, also. Few took him seriously as an actor before Fringe - but now, you've got to. As Peter Bishop, Jackson began his time on Fringe as a shifty smart-ass, but evolved into a brave, quick-thinking hero who both honored his father and learned from his sins. And you've also got to mention Lance Reddick as Broyles - the no-nonsense, uber-badass leader of Fringe Division, the elite group that Walter, Peter, and Olivia would come to work for. Reddick is so full of gravitas that it hurts. No one else could have given the show the kind of regal, resolute dosage of awesome that he did, week in and week out. There's also Jasika Nicole as Astrid, Walter's loyal lab assistant. Astrid could have been a one-note character, but Jasika made her an integral part of the show, and gave Fringe some of its most heart-filled and touching moments. Her relationship with Walter was so good, so real-seeming, that there may have been no more moving scene in the series finale than their final exchange. Throughout the show, a running gag was that brain-addled Walter could never quite get her name right - calling her everything from Astro to Ashcan. But in the finale, when Walter, in a moment of clarity, looks up at his steadfast partner and remarks "Astrid ... it's a beautiful name" ... my god - amazing.

There are so many other fantastic actors that made an impact on Fringe. Blair Brown made Nina Sharp's ambiguous agenda endlessly fascinating. Nina's company - Massive Dynamic - was surely one of the most intriguing and downright coolest parts of Fringe's sci-fi mythology. Seth Gabel joined the show late as Lincoln Lee, but he immediately became a fan-favorite. On Earth 1, he was shy and geeky, harboring a hopeless crush on Olivia. But on Earth 2, he was a charismatic hotshot - a leader of that world's militaristic version of Fringe Division. Leonard Nimoy, of course, was always a welcome sight as William Bell. But it was the great Jared Harris who became the show's breakout villain - the scarred, hate-filled, universe-hopping David Robert Jones. Kirk Acevedo was also a big part of the show's run, as Olivia's FBI mentor Charlie Francis. For most of Fringe's lifetime, Michael Cervaris was otherworldly as The Observer - even when we found out his name, September, he still was alien-like and mysterious. But in Season 5, humanized and transformed, September became an unexpectedly integral figure in the finale - made all the more great by Cervaris' nuanced performance. As Etta, the grown-up future daughter of Peter and Olivia, Georgina Haig was the fresh-faced hero of Season 5 - the vision of goodness in a world gone mad. Conversely, Michael Kopsa's menacing Captain Windmark was the expressionless face of a dystopian future robbed of light and joy.

You've also got to give a well-deserved shoutout to showrunners J.H. Wyman and Jeff Pinkner. Often overlooked, these two have done what many have not been able to - steer an ambitious sci-fi series through five seasons and let it grow and change while never spiraling out of control. Wyman and Pinkner and the rest of the Fringe team deserve a lot of credit - for a show that told a cohesive big-picture story, but that also delivered some of the finest individual hour-long episodes we've seen on TV over the last decade, period.

Fringe evolved a ton over the years. Looking back, it's hard to believe that the show began life with Torv's Agent Dunham paired with Mark Valley's ill-fated Agent Scott. Or that Ari Graynor was once a series regular as Olivia's sister. Or that Kevin Corrigan's enigmatic Sam Weiss was once thought to be the key to the series' then-numerous mysteries. I never expected that the show's final season would take place in a dystopian future where the once harmless-seeming beings called The Observers ruled the earth with an iron fist. But through it all, FRINGE stayed true to it core themes and characters. Somehow, it took us to other dimensions and other times - from monster-of-the-week procedural to sci-fi serialization - and yet held together as a cohesive narrative that could still be boiled down to its basic thematic tenets.

Fringe adopted many of the best aesthetic qualities of shows like The X-Files and Lost. It had a great atmosphere of foreboding, tinged with an offbeat sense of humor and a surprising amount of heart. The show almost always looked amazing - and featured some truly inspired design for its creatures, characters, and worlds. The music was always a highlight. Especially in the dystopian setting of Season 5, I've loved the John Carpenter-esque score used to maximum dramatic effect. What was so remarkable though was the detail put into these worlds to distinguish, say, our world from the colder, more futuristic Earth 2. Earth 2 felt different, distinct, and of course the details big and small drove that home - from its flying zeppelin ships to its bronze Statue of Liberty to little, fanboy-friendly details like the "alternate" versions of classic comic book covers, glimpsed on the walls of Peter's Earth 2 bedroom. And I'll say it again - the way that the actors on the show portrayed multiple versions of their characters was nothing short of amazing. John Noble as the grimly ruthless "Walternate," Jasika Nicole as autistic savant Earth 2 Astrid, and of course Anna Torv and the multiple versions of Olivia - all amazing. They were so good that when an episode was partially set in Earth 2, you half expected to see other actors' names pop up as special guest stars in the credits.

One thing that I also always loved about Fringe is that Fringe loved science. Lost went off the rails in large part when it abandoned science fiction for all-you-need-is-love spirituality, but FRINGE took joy in science and pseudo-science right up until the very end. Yes, the show did at times infuse its science-y core with a mild dose of hokey "love is the answer" sentimentality, but that never stopped Fringe from being a show that reveled in science in a way that few other shows, ever (okay, maybe Star Trek: The Next Generation), have done. Some of the most joyous moments on Fringe were those in which Walter or Peter giddily explained some neat-o bit of science, often with few visual aids but a chalk or dry-erase board. Fringe was often about the dangers of unchecked science, but it was also very much about the joy of scientific knowledge and discovery. Often, the show would seem to say that there was no problem that couldn't be solved, no jam that these characters couldn't get out of, by using the power of their brains to think outside the box. Fringe celebrated science, intelligence, and creativity. Not to get too political, but in a world in which science, facts, knowledge, and smarts often seem to be viewed with a skeptical eye by the masses, it was awesome to see a show that reminded us of the wonder and awe to be found through brainpower, through innovation, through boundary-pushing ideas.

It's amazing - I've been blogging now for almost 10 years, and Fringe was one of the big shows that I used to write about consistently, back when I was doing weekly TV reviews. Looking back at my initial thoughts on the show, there was indeed a lot of skepticism there at the outset. But Fringe kept evolving - making bold leaps and never failing to take narrative chances. Just as Lost was losing momentum, Fringe was quietly becoming the best show on TV. It barely cracked my Top 10 in 2008, but moved up in 2009. In 2010, I named it the Best TV Show of the Year. The show's second season saw an incredible string of episodes - as we learned about Peter's otherdimensional origins, met a time-travelling Peter Weller in the instant-classic "White Tulip" episode, and got our first glimpse of "the other side," Fringe quickly cemented itself as not just a wannabe, but as a new classic in its own right. Seasons 2 and 3 of Fringe are just off-the-chain good. And Season 5 was a nice epilogue of sorts - a self-contained, highly-serialized sci-fi story that brought things full circle for the characters.

And that finale ... while it felt rushed in parts, I will say that I enjoyed it greatly, especially in terms of how it worked as send-off for these characters, and as a tribute of sorts to the history of the show. The final raid on the Observer HQ was a gloriously insane, Cabin in the Woods-esque climax, as all manner of monsters-of-the-week were unleashed on the Observers, who never knew what hit them. "That is cool!" exclaims Walter, as one of his repossessed super-science weapons causes a hapless Observer to defy gravity and float, immobilized, into the air. And yes, it was friggin' cool. FRINGE never lost sight of the cool-factor over all these years. At the same time, that anchor that was always there - Walter and his journey - again formed the backbone of the finale. Walter, walking off into the great unknown - sad because he must leave his son, but satisfied in that he has, seemingly - and finally! - found his ultimate redemption and done his part to save the same world - the same people - that he once almost destroyed.

What's funny about this finale though is something that's true when most great stories come to an end - the sense of finality mixed with an overpowering feeling that these characters still exist, that they live on. Just as I sometimes wonder what Mulder and Scully are up to these days, I too will wonder about Walter Bishop, and Peter and Olivia, and Broyles, and Astrid. Sure, the finale ended with Walter separated from his family by centuries, and with Olivia and Peter finally at peace with their daughter Etta. But come on, this is FRINGE ... who's to say that some world-conquering threat won't prompt Walter to jump back to the present to enlist the help of his old friends? Who's to say that Peter and Olivia won't get caught up in some transdimensional hijinks that requires getting the old gang back together? Who's to day that Etta won't one day grow up to be the same sort of resourceful badass we saw in Season 5, and go off on her own universe-spanning quest? This is the power of great fiction. These character now exist. Our universe is but one in the multiverse, and only the lack of Walter's Window prevents us from peering over. But for five seasons, our screens have been our Windows. And who's to say that these characters won't continue to evolve, to grow, to persist even when we're not looking in on their lives?

FRINGE's journey undoubtedly became a highly emotional one for its fans and for its cast and crew. This summer, I sat at the Fringe panel at the San Diego Comic-Con, and watched as actors like Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, Jasika Nicole - even Lance Reddick! - broke down in tears talking about the show's final season and what the show had meant to them. Donned in mass-distributed old-timey Observer hats, the audience clapped and cheered in appreciation. Fringe had become one of the Great shows, and more - a beloved fictional universe in its own right. Just as Walter Bishop had done, Fringe itself had "crossed over," through the looking glass, and here it was on the other side.

We've all been part of it - "a great adventure," as Walter might smile and say, "like The Guns of Navarone!" We all travel to different worlds and other universes every day, in our own way. But for five years, I am glad that I got to be a part of this one. Whatever comes next - whatever the next potentially great sci-fi show might be ... it will have a hell of a lot to live up to. Fringe will be missed, but it will also still be there, somewhere, in the multiverse. For us, the adventure continues.

Friday, January 18, 2013

MAMA Is Grim Fairy-Tale Fun

MAMA Review:

- Mama is easily a cut above your average horror film. While it does have some of the standard-issue jump scares and common-sense deprived characters of your typical run-of-the-mill horror flick, it's got a lot that separates it from the pack, and that elevates it above so many of the other generic horror movies to have come out recently. For one thing, under the guidance of producer and creative genius Guillermo Del Toro, Mama has a rich, compelling mythology and an even richer visual palette. The movie looks amazing - blending gothic horror with creepy-fairy-tale fantasy to weave some truly spellbinding sequences. Director Andres Muschietti really knocks it out of the park. The movie also has heart - I can't remember the last time I saw a horror movie where I actually felt fully invested in the characters, and felt not just fright, but sadness and joy. Finally, MAMA has got one of the best actresses in the biz today - Jessica Chastain. Proving that there isn't anything she can't do, Chastain plays against type as a gothed-out riot girl who is an interesting and complex character. MAMA is good stuff - creepy, cool, and a lot of fun.

The movie starts out on a harrowing note, as we're immediately thrust into an intense scene of domestic hell. A mentally unstable father - played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister on Game of Thrones) - drives his two young daughters through a snow-covered mountain road. We find out that the father has just murdered his wife, and might now have similar intentions for his daughters. But the car crashes, and the trio end up deep in the snow-covered woods. They stumble through the trees and twigs until they come across an old, abandoned cabin. They take shelter, as the father contemplates doing harm to his innocent children. But suddenly, the father is thwarted and disposed of by a vengeful spirit - "Mama." This spirit watches over the children, and for five years, raises them as her own - as feral, animalistic creatures - deep within the woods. Eventually, the children are found by a search party - their uncle Jeffrey (also played by Coster-Waldau) has kept looking for them all this time. He and his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) take in the girls, who are now very much damaged by their experiences in the woods. The older daughter, Victoria, can still speak - and adjusts a little easier to being in civilization again. But the younger daughter, Lilly, is far gone - she doesn't talk, she walks on all fours, and she still has an unholy connection to the spirit she calls Mama. And Mama still has a connection to the girls. Jealous and rage-filled, Mama haunts Jeffrey and Annabel's home in hopes of reclaiming the girls she believes are hers and hers alone to love.

The two young girls in the film are fantastic. Megan Charpientier, who plays the older Victoria, is the more conflicted of the two - struggling to become a normal girl again and escape the influence of Mama. Lilly, the younger daughter, played by Isabelle Nelisse - is just delightfully deranged - weird and eerie and wholly convincing as a person who has known virtually nothing except for life in the wild. Together, they really help make the movie as good as it is. Even as you're semi-terrified of the girls, you also can't help but come to feel invested in their well-being.

And that same evolution is what makes Jessica Chastain's Annabel such a compelling character. She's a punk rocker who doesn't want kids. She's not a bad person, just a little rough around the edges - and definitely not enthused about taking in two feral kids who talk to a possibly vengeful spirit. But Annabel does slowly come to care for these kids, and it's a character arc that happens slowly, but in a way that really makes Annabel feel fully-fleshed-out. And man, it's sort of amazing watching Chastain in this so soon after Zero Dark Thirty - it's a completely different character, but Chastain just sort of disappears into the role. If you didn't know it was her, you might think it was a completely different actress. She, also, really elevates this film with her performance.

Visually, the movie has a dark fairy-tale vibe and also shows a lot of J-horror influence. Some may complain that some of the movie's visual motifs - like the smoky black holes that appear in the walls, signalling the presence of Mama - are too derivative of other Japan-influenced horror flicks. But I thought there was a real visual inventiveness to the movie that helped it to feel like more than just a pastiche of genre influences. And in the third act, when things get really crazy and sort of epic, there are some gorgeous scenes of ethereal mayhem. There's even a really cool, ultra-stylized dream-sequence that tells Mama's backstory, shot in a disorienting first-person perspective, that I thought worked well.

And again, I found myself surprised at how the movie turned out to be much more than just scares. There's heart in MAMA - as in, there were some moments that I had chills, and some moments where I felt sad and/or moved for these characters. And there is some strong narrative complexity here as well, in that there are some nicely-drawn parallels between Mama and Annabel, and some poetic symmetry in how their relationships with Victoria and Lilly evolve.

Before I get too caught up in praising the film though, I will point out that its high points are nearly matched by some moments of lameness and cheese. Two key side characters, for example - a psychiatrist working with the girls, and a steely aunt in a custody battle with Jeffrey and Annabel - are often eye-rollingly one-note. As such, they often act according to horror movie cliche, and make the sort of lame-brained decisions that will have you screaming at the movie screen. The movie can also feel a little jumpy. While I appreciate that it doesn't spend too much time having everyone doubt Mama's existence, or dwell too much on the "mystery" of her backstory, some sequences do feel slightly rushed. Namely, characters have to make a lot of big, Mulder-esque leaps towards the end of the film. Something that happens in a lot of movies, sure - but in Mama, there are enough instances of characters acting with nuance and intelligence that the moments when they don't are particularly jarring. Finally, given that most of the movie has a great, creeptastic atmosphere, I also felt like there were way too many jump-scare attempts. It felt unnecessary - especially in the instances where the scares were just fake-outs.

Overall though, MAMA really impressed me - and I'd count it as one of the most interesting and rewarding horror movies I've seen in a while. I really enjoyed the twisted fairy-tale-esque vibe of the film - the Del Toro touch really gave the movie that extra visual pop. It also felt like there was more thematic depth, more epicness, and more genuine emotion on display than in most horror flicks. And if that's not enough, there's also Jessica Chastain in fine form, rocking goth gear and a bad attitude and making even more of a case for her status as one of the best actresses in Hollywood. Whoah mama indeed.

My Grade: B+

Monday, January 14, 2013

It's 2013 and It's Time To Stop The Madness! A New Year's RANT OF DOOM.

- Well, here we are, and it's 2013 ... guess that whole Mayan apocalypse thing didn't quite pan out.

After a string of exhaustive 2012 Year-In-Review posts, I was a bit blogged-out. At the same time, I wanted to kick off 2013 with some good material, and was trying to figure out what to write. As often happens though, the subject matter found me (as opposed to the other way around), and here I am with a lot to say as we find ourselves midway through January.

Basically, my question of the moment is: HAS THE WHOLE WORLD GONE CRAZY?!

Now, this is largely a pop-culture blog, so I ask that question through a pop-culture-tinged lense. But still, the question remains, and it invariably ties to a larger socio-political context. It's no wonder that post-apocalyptic fiction is so popular right now ... sometimes it really does feel like the end is nigh. Not even the end of things on a material level, but the end of reason, sanity, and level-headedness.

I will start with the macro-view of things and talk about something that's obvious: America has a problem with violence. This past year, there were scores of horrific shootings that made one wonder what the hell was wrong with people. There was an added dimension of horror to these incidents because they largely took place in places that we regard as safe havens: movie theaters, malls, and most of all, schools. Incident after incident occurred, with the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back being the Sandy Hook school shooting in my home state of Connecticut. The fact that innocent children were gunned down - kids under 10 years old - it was almost too much to bear. Still, even thinking about it is almost impossibly sad, and hard to wrap one's brain around.

As I (and most rational people, I think) see it, there are two main addressable issues here. One is gun control. Many of these incidents were perpetrated by assault rifles and other weapons far too powerful to be available for civilian use. Few are advocating the ban of guns altogether, but many want to see sensible regulations on what kinds of guns can be sold, and to whom. For years, I've found it frustrating that this issue has been tossed aside as a political minefield not worth addressing or spotlighting in national debate and discourse. It's a shame that it took such horrific incidents to finally get the conversation going again. The second issue is mental health. There seems to be a real issue with the identification and treatment of mental illness here in America. It's too hard and too costly for many families to have mentally ill sons or daughters properly treated or cared for. And as relates to gun control, the fact that people with mental illness had such easy and free access to guns is maddening.

The fact is - certain people and factions in America just have ridiculously backwards and asinine views of guns and their rights as relates to them. The gun culture in America is harmful, problematic, disruptive, and just plain misguided. Too many people fancy themselves to be soldiers, vigilantes, and cowboys - and are living in a fantasy world in which one must stockpile bullets in the event that the US government turns on its people.

In any case, there was a moment after the Sandy Hook shooting in which the one silver lining seemed to be that we were, finally, going to turn a corner. But now, I worry that, as often happens, we are letting the moment pass us and get buried under an avalanche of distractions, politics, and sound-bytes designed not for reasonable discussion, but to feed the beast of a 24-hour news cycle.

And that brings me to the micro view. As I look around, I see intelligent discussion about violence in America being swallowed up by brainlessness. I see the hard conversations - the ones about gun control and treatment of mental illness - being undermined by the same old easy conversations, where pundits and politicians blame things like movies and videogames for all of our problems.

The sudden resurgence in attacks against the videogame industry really bothers me for how misguided it is. For one thing, last time I looked, none of the attackers in the major shooting incidents in 2012 were children. All were adults. So why then is there the constant need to talk about the effect of media on them? Lord knows - any work of fiction or nonfiction, be it the Bible, Shakespeare, Die Hard, or Call of Duty - has the same ability to warp a mentally unstable person's mind. There's nothing new here, and there's no reason why we should condemn STORIES for real-life actions. What I am seeing now is a movement towards the worst possible thing in a free society: censorship. In Connecticut, residents of the town of Southington are getting together to BURN violent videogames. Are you kidding me? How is this any different than burning books, movies, or music? This is Farenheit 451 come to horrific life. There always has been and always will be media that is inappropriate for children, and it's the responsibility of parents to ensure that their kids are exposed to age-appropriate material. But to limit what stories adults are exposed to because of fear of the story's content? That, my friends, is crazy. So how about if instead of burning / destroying games, the parents of Southington actually do their jobs and parent, rather than act like savages in their own right?

This same madness extends to the world of television, where the recent TCA event - in which networks show off their new series for critics and journalists - was riddled with accusations of too-violent content. Again, why should series aimed at an adult audience concern themselves with such things? Furthermore, to reduce media to base-level labels like violent and nonviolent severely undermines questions of context and quality. In the world of TV, this is especially true. Over the last decade and a half, we've seen a renaissance in quality on television. We've seen dark and mature shows - from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad - that are more intelligent, more nuanced, more complex - than most of what used to be churned out. TV has become challenging and adult - no longer just a pacifier, no longer just an idiot-box. So of course, people are now coming out of the woodwork to criticize it.

The truth is that there will always be art that revels in violence for the sake of violence. We have a primal part of us that is excited by violence as the ultimate life-or-death challenge. Drama is best when the stakes are high - and no stakes are higher than life and death. This is literal and metaphorical - after all, what is the fascination with professional sports if not as a microcosm of life and death. Isn't the warlike strategy of football basically warfare in miniature, the tackles a stand-in for killing blows? Don't we all enjoy the drama of all-or-nothing, winner takes all? That is always going to be reflected in our culture. At the same time, there is also always going to be art that celebrates life, goodness, friendship, love, and the human spirit. We all have a need for those kinds of stories, and they will always be there. Sometimes, an outwardly violent tale can actually turn out to be uplifting and good - take Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Sometimes, an outwardly sweet story can actually end up being soul-crushing - look at the stories of Charlie Brown: a cute cartoon character for kids whose adventures are actually almost nihilistic in their negative outlook on life. Point being: you can't just label something as violent-bad or peaceful-good. In fact, I think there's a strong argument to be made that people who live lives in which they repress their minds to violence and sex and anything that challenges their worldview ... those are the people who often end up with the most problems. How many politicians, Catholic priests, and other would-be role models have turned out to be hypocritical people who act out on the very things they preach most loudly against? It's why the people calling for censorship - either self-censorship or imposed-on-others censorship, often strike me as the craziest of all.

At the movies, you've not got journalists ganging up on guys like Quentin Tarantino and his latest film, Django Unchained. The criticisms are not new for Tarantino, but they seem to be heightened due to the recent anti-violence, anti-everything-that's-not-100%-politically-correct hysteria. Now, Django is unquestionably a complicated film from a tonal perspective. It's got a pulpy, over-the-top, often comedic style that references Spaghetti Westerns, grindhouse cinema, and blaxploitation flicks. But it also has some real social commentary beneath the surface, and its portrayal of slavery in the pre-Civil War south is starkly brutal and disturbing. And yet, people are fixated on the movie's use of the n-word. People are reducing the movie to over-the-top pulp - even though there's much more to it - and therefore taking issue with a supposedly silly movie's use of a very serious word. Again, it's an issue of reductivism - people are too lazy to really examine the film's themes, its contrasting tones, its genre influences, and what it's saying about slavery and race - and are instead framing criticisms in sound-bytes ready-made for FOX News. The exact same reductivism is happening with regards to the movie's violence. Obviously, Tarantino is a guy who enjoys the visceral, subversive thrill of a great action scene. He is a great storyteller, and a master of building up narrative tension that culminates in violent climax. But rather than have intelligent discussions about the movie's narrative beats, people seem to want to simply label it as violent, and that's that. How many Oscar-winning movies could have just been labeled as violent - and therefore not worthwhile - and that's that? How many great books could be labeled as violent - and therefore not worth further analysis or cultural merit - and that's that?

This same logic applies to videogames. After all these years, too many mainstream critics and "journalists" fail to engage with the medium on any level except with regards to violence vs. non-violence. There is a whole world of aesthetics and craft that don't get discussed outside of enthusiasts. Gameplay, graphic artistry, control, precision, immersiveness, challenge, and yes - story and theme. I think about The Walking Dead videogame that I named as game of the year for 2012. There is violence and horror in it, yes. But it also put you in the role of protective father-figure, group leader, and redemption-seeker. And yet, in the spewed-out non-discussion of games, in which "violent" games are being burned in Southington, a game brimming with artistic merit might be thrown into the flames.

But back to movies, the most prominent example of small-minded reductivism has to be the recent "controversy" around Zero Dark Thirty, which I find sort of shocking. Here is one of the most intelligent, well-crafted films of 2012 - a movie that never talks down to its audience - that is being attacked from all sides for no reason except, again, to stir the pot. At the least, it was reassuring to know that the movie still did solid box-office this week despite all of the crazy complaints. It makes me wonder if we live in such a sound-byte oriented society that we no longer know how to process nuance or complexity. It's the same way in which everyone yelled about the "fiscal cliff" without knowing a damn thing about it, except that it was coming and it was bad. With Zero Dark Thirty, there is now a controversy about the depiction of torture in the movie. How is this possible? What's true is that the movie opens the floodgates for discussion and debate about America's use of torture in the war on terror. What isn't true is that it endorses torture. In fact, the most prominent theme of the entire movie is the psychological toll that torture takes - on those directly involved in administering it, and on the country as a whole. The depiction of torture in the movie is never cathartic or exploitative - instead, it's hard-to-watch and almost makes you sympathetic for the prisoners. But what's brilliant about the film is that it doesn't really lean one way or the other - it presents torture in a way that forces you as a viewer to think about its benefits vs. its consequences. Key words being: "forces you to think."

Somehow, complaints about the film's exact accuracy morphed into a meme stating that it was controversial because it endorsed torture. First of all, these criticisms are not the same at all. Second, I don't see how it's fair to criticize a movie that represents still-classified events as being not wholly accurate. The movie is journalistic and real-feeling in its broad strokes, but I don't think most expected it to capture the entire hunt for Bin Laden in minute detail. It disappoints me that politicians would so forcefully condemn the movie for this reason. But this all goes back to what I was talking about earlier: not paying attention to a story's broader themes, instead focusing only on details that might prove offensive if taken out of context. Let's look at Zero Dark Thirty as a whole - the entire movie is clearly a fictionalized amalgam of real people and events, put together in order to tell a story about a specific moment in American history, and the slow and scar-tissue laced road to healing post-9/11. Jessica Chastain's character is based on some real people in the CIA, but isn't a direct representation of any one person. The same goes for most of the film's other characters. So already, from Moment One in the movie, we as viewers know that this isn't a documentary, but an approximation of real events, assembled in dramatic fashion in order to make a broader thematic point. Argo used the same sort of artistic license. As did Lincoln. AS DID EVERY FICTIONAL MOVIE ABOUT REAL EVENTS EVER MADE.

And so, in the discussion about what - exactly - is truth vs. fiction in Zero Dark Thirty, the real discussion that the movie *should* be prompting conveniently gets totally lost. The movie should be inspiring meaningful conversation about to what lengths America should go to preserve its safety and its freedom, about what lines we should draw to distinguish us from our enemies, about the symbolic importance of finding Osama Bin Laden and the work that still needs to be done even after his death.

But America seems to be having a moment where intelligent conversation is being totally washed out by reactionary outrage. We are better than this. And I know that because we count among us intelligent and gifted storytellers like Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Spielberg who have been telling the story of America in interesting, thought-provoking (and - gasp! - sometimes violent) ways. My sincere hope for 2013 is that we stop the madness and stop the calls for censorship. That we stop confusing the real issues with the imagined ones. That we tackle what is practical and pragmatic instead of what is baseless. Let's embrace those ideas and those voices that challenge us, make us think, and make us smarter, and tune out those that reduce everything to sound bytes and dogmatic us vs. them fear-mongering. Let's remember that there's nothing wrong with being different, or thinking different, or being an individual - in fact, that's what makes America great in the first place. When everything becomes Blue vs. Red, side vs. side, we lower ourselves to the reductivism I've been rallying against. Let's start using our brains again, and remember that the world is a weird and complicated place - but that that's what makes it great.