Journey to a Mother’s Room (Viaje al cuarto de una madre)


Mother/daughter relationships can be complicated.

(2018) Drama (Loco/Alfa) Lola Dueñas, Anna Castillo, Noemi Hopper, Ana Mena, Susana Abaitua, Marisol Membrillo, Pedro Casablanc, Silvia Casanova, Lucia Muñoz Durán, Adelfa Calvo, Maika Barroso, Beatriz Cotobal. Directed by Celia Rico Clavellino

Letting go is one of the hardest things a parent has to do – but they have to do it in order for their children to become independent, self-sufficient adults. Some find it much harder to do than others.

Estrella (Dueñas) lives in a small Spanish town in a small Spanish apartment with her daughter Leonor (Castillo) who works at the same dry-cleaning plant that she herself once worked in. The two watch telenovelas on the tube, sharing snacks and often falling asleep together on the couch. As for the dad, whether he’s deceased, divorced or deserted, it all amounts to him being absent and unremarked upon; his non-presence makes him no better than a ghost.

But like many young people, Leonor longs for more and after a friend returns from London and speaks glowingly about her experiences there, Leonor determines that she is going to have those experiences for herself. However, telling her mother that is another thing entirely; she’s sure that this will lead to an unpleasant confrontation. Estrella turns out to handle it a lot better than her daughter expects her to although she’s not wild about the idea; still, she realizes that her daughter needs to spread her wings and she can’t do that inside the nest.

Estrella is lonely without Leonor and lives for her daughter’s infrequent calls on What’s App. Still, when the boss of the dry cleaning plant (Casablanc) approaches Estrella with a request to make some dresses, Estrella finds a new lease on life and a purpose that until then had completely revolved around raising her daughter. As for Leonor, London turns out to be a lot different than she had anticipated.

This slice of life film is unusual in that it takes the point of view of the mother; rather than follow the younger woman to the big city, it stays in the small town with the mom and examines what happens with her when the walls close in and there is nothing but the silence to fill it. Fortunately for us, two brilliant Spanish actresses – frequent Almodóvar collaborator Dueñas and promising new face Castillo both deliver compelling and understated performances that smack of authenticity.

Most women are going to recognize the civil friction between the two, either from the mother’s or the daughter’s point of view. Each are clinging to something; the mom to memories of the past, the daughter to a vision of an unattainable future. Both have their delusions in their own way; both are resolute in sticking to them. The one thing that is certain though is that the two love each other and need each other.

My problem with the movie though rests with the pacing which is very slow, as well as the often-meandering story that sometimes chases its own tail. There seems to be a lot of script that could have been judiciously trimmed to make the story a bit more succinct. The ending also comes a bit more abruptly than I would have liked.

Then again, life generally doesn’t move in those cadences; life moves to a beat all its own and it is rare that we are in sync with it. There is a lot to recommend this film (and I do) but I can’t do that unreservedly without telling readers that there is a good chance that they will find the movie difficult. Still, I think an awful lot of mothers and daughters would benefit from giving this one a whirl.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very realistic portrayal of a relationship between mother and daughter.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unfortunately, the film is prone to meandering and then ends abruptly
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this is Clavellino’s feature film debut, she has directed a short film which won the Gaudi Award for Best Short Film, the equivalent of an Oscar given for films in the Catalan language of Western Spain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mothers and Daughters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Gloria Bell

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Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben)


Mother comforts daughter.

(2018) Drama (Focus) Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin, Eduard Fernandez, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Elvira Minguez, Ramón Barea, Carla Campra, Sara Sálamo, Roger Casamajor, Josė Ángel Egido, Sergio Castellanos, Iván Chavero, Tomás del Estal, Imma Sancho, Paco Pastor Gómez, Jaime Lorente, Mari Carmen Sánchez, Carla Campra. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

When a family gets together for an occasion (a wedding, a christening, a holiday etc.) it’s usually a joyful occasion. Oh sure, there may be some relatives you’re not keen on seeing like alcoholic Uncle Al, creepy cousin Wendell or Grandpa the conservative political troll but by and large you’re happy to be around those who have blood ties. Then again, they all know where the bodies are buried – sometimes literally.

Laura (Cruz) lives in Argentina now but she returns to her rural Spanish village to attend her sister Ana’s (Cuesta) wedding to Joan (Casamajor). She has brought with her teen daughter Irene (Campra) who is just getting into that rebellious age, her younger son Diego (Chavero) but not her successful husband Alejandro (Darin) who has a successful business to attend to. Also in attendance are bitter patriarch Antonio (Barea) who gambled and drank away most of the land the family once owned, son of a former servant Paco (Bardem) who bought part of that land and turned it into a thriving vineyard, and Paco’s wife Bea (Lennie) whose childlessness is a source of much village speculation.

The night of the reception is greeted with a violent thunderstorm which knocks out the power. As the evening begins to wind down, Laura goes upstairs to check on her children – and finds Irene missing with newspaper clippings of a local kidnapping that ended up tragically scattered on the bed. This is followed up with a texted ransom demand for an exorbitant amount of cash that as it turns out, Laura and Alejandro do not have – her husband being not quite as successful as the family was led to believe.

The fact that Paco and Laura were once lovers until Laura dumped him was no secret – everybody knows this, but not everybody knows…well, the real reason Irene was kidnapped and we won’t get into that here. The kidnappers are very clear that the police should not be called if Irene is to return home alive but they do consult with a retired detective (Egido) who suspects an inside job and in effect tells them to “trust no-one.”

On the surface it sounds like a standard potboiler but when you have a cast like this one and an Oscar-winning director as Farhadi is you can depend on good things happening. Cruz and Bardem are two of the best in the business and Cruz delivers a powerful emotional performance, alternately anguished over her child’s kidnapping and forlorn over what might have been with Paco. Bardem has a bit of a hangdog look but his inner decency stands out from the venality of much of the rest of the family.

Beautifully photographed in idyllic sepia tones, the movie manages to move at the same pace as the rhythms of country life which is a bit odd for a movie with so many thriller elements but works nonetheless. Some American viewers might find this maddeningly slow-paced but most avid cinephiles won’t have a problem with it. Yes, there are twists and turns and none of them are particularly remarkable but the thriller side is pretty effective. The reveal of the identity of the kidnappers though is a bit of a disappointment and never really makes much sense. Me, I liked the view of rural Spanish life more but that’s just the kind of guy I am.

Sometimes a movie can be forgiven its flaws because of the reputation of those behind the camera and the performances of those in front of it. This is such an occasion. Farhadi, who has some amazing films to his credit (including A Separation and The Salesman) didn’t deliver one of his best works here – and keep in mind this is his first Spanish-language film, a language he does not speak. This isn’t for everybody and that and it’s somewhat anti-climactic ending kept it from a perfect score but it’s still a worthwhile viewing for cinema lovers and casual movie fans alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Bardem and Cruz deliver outstanding performances. The film gives a nice glimpse at Spanish rural life. While the twists and turns don’t rewrite the book, they are nonetheless effective
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie drags a little bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bardem and Cruz, who play former lovers here, are actually married in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ransom
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Los Reyes

Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre)


Beauty and the geek.

Beauty and the geek.

(2011) Sci-Fi Comedy (Focus) Julian Villagran, Michelle Jenner, Carlos Areces, Raul Cimas, Miguel Noguera. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

Offshoring

You wake up after a night of partying and drinking. You’re in a strange bedroom. You don’t remember very much from the night before. The electricity is off. Giant spacecraft are hovering over the city. Don’t you hate when that happens?

Julio (Villagran) is in exactly this predicament. He finds himself in the apartment of Julia (Jenner), a woman so blindingly beautiful that he knows he has no right to score with this kind of woman. Neither of them can remember sealing the deal however, although there is evidence that they did – clothing scattered all over the room, that sort of thing.

While they’re trying to get their heads around the situation, with the city deserted and apparently evacuated while they slept off their epic bender, there’s a knock on the door; it’s Angel (Areces), a nosy neighbor who as it turns out has a crush on Julia. Further complicating things is the arrival of Carlos (Cimas) who is Julia’s ex – but maybe not so ex as she is leading the other two men to believe. He’s a survivalist and has plans on how to ride this situation out.

However, even Carlos didn’t come up with the scenario that all three men, incredibly jealous of the other two, would try to one-up each other to impress the girl, getting them pushed out of the apartment on the premise that maybe they are aliens in disguise. No doubt Julia will be taking eye-rolling to a new art form.

This is Vigalondo’s follow-up to the excellent Timecrimes which was his first feature. Like in that film, Vigalondo  takes genre tropes and turns them on their ear somewhat. In this film, we never see the aliens or learn why they are here. The action instead focuses on the three men trying to win the one woman. The alien invasion is more background noise than raison d’être.

Jenner is a nice find, remarkably beautiful and able to play both shallow and smart. She’s not mere eye candy here although the other men treat her character that way somewhat and her character is not above manipulating the other men. Villagran makes a fine non-heroic sort, a good guy who is in over his head.

There aren’t a lot of effects other than the magnificent alien ships which hover soundlessly in the Spanish sky. Vigalondo keeps the pace moving quickly and has a deft touch with the comedic aspects; for example, one of the men, locked out of the apartment, throws tennis balls in frustration at the open window which is a lot funnier than it sounds.

Keep in mind that the movie isn’t about the alien invasion so much, although there is kind of a Twilight Zone feel to the movie – or to be more accurate, an Outer Limits feel. It’s not about survival of the fittest. It’s a bit of a comedy, a bit sci-fi, a bit romance and a bit farce. Mostly, the movie is about what lengths men will go to in order to win a beautiful woman, and everyone knows the answer to that one – whatever it takes.

WHY RENT THIS: Uses a lot of genre cliches in unexpected ways. Jenner makes a wonderful lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Cantabria, a city in northern Spain.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Currently unavailable.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), iTunes (buy/rent), Vudu (purchase only),  Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Signs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

Blackthorn


Butch Cassidy wants to make a withdrawal.

Butch Cassidy wants to make a withdrawal.

(2011) Western (Magnolia) Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Magaly Solier, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott, Luis Bredow, Christian Mercado, Daniel Aguirre, Martin Proctor, Maria Luque, Raul Beltran, Luis Aduviri, Claudia Coronel, Erika Andia, Shirley Torres, Jorge Hidalgo, Daniel Acre, Fernando Gamarra, Delia Fabian. Directed by Mateo Gil

Westerns have been an important part of the movies ever since Thomas Edison invented the damn things. They have been iconic representations of America and the rugged individualism of Americans in general. They have fallen out of favor lately as we have changed as a nation and for better or for worse, our values are different now.

James Blackthorn (Shepard) is an American expatriate living in Bolivia, raising championship race horses. It is 1922 and he is an old man now although the name James Blackthorn is an invention and most people know him by a different name: Butch Cassidy. Yes, James Blackthorn is the famous outlaw who didn’t die in that notorious shoot-out but survived, although he is content to let the world think that Butch Cassidy is a corpse.

However when he receives word that his former lover Etta Place (McElligott) has passed away, he yearns to return home and visit her son Ryan who may or may not be his. He sells his horses and is returning back to his village, he is ambushed by Eduardo (Noriega), a Spanish mining engineer who insists he is shooting at men who are pursuing him, thinking that James was one. Unfortunately in the fracas, James’ horse Cinco bolts off with the money. Eduardo offers to share part of the $50,000 he stole from the mine owner Simon Patino, a Bolivian industrialist and mine operator (who actually existed, by the way) if Blackthorn can get him to the abandoned mine where the money is hidden. Needing the cash to get home, Blackthorn agrees.

The journey will take the two men across the high plains of Bolivia where they will be pursued by Patino’s relentless posse. Blackthorn will come face to face with old enemies and new lovers and more to the point, will be faced with a choice that will cut to the heart of who he always has been – and may change who he has become.

This is the English language debut of Spanish director Gil and it is somewhat fitting that he has chosen a Western to do it in. Westerns, many of which were shot in Spain during the 60s and 70s, have remained a favorite there more than here. Using one that has roots in the real American West is a note of gracia that those with Spanish souls will appreciate.

Shepard is perfectly cast as the grizzled, battle-hardened outlaw who wants nothing more than to live out the rest of his life in peace. He has the kind of face that hints at hard days and harder nights and Shepard uses his own persona as a kind of a springboard here. The ghost of Paul Newman and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hangs heavily over the production but while this is in a sense a sequel, it also is a completely different movie. This is kind of a what-if and I suppose that the original George Roy Hill movie was a little bit like that but while that movie was a product of a different time, so too is this movie a product of this time. It has kind of a somber disposition which some may find leaning too much in that direction. Caveat emptor.

Rea, who plays a former Pinkerton detective who always believed Butch was still alive, also is fine in support. Noriega is a decent enough actor but his chemistry with Shepard is a bit constrained; in many ways his character was a bit superfluous and while his robbery of the mine money is the catalyst of the events here, I can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers had concentrated on Butch/Blackthorn that this wouldn’t have been a better movie. It definitely would have been better if they’d eliminated the flashbacks to a younger Butch and Sundance which do nothing for the film other than interrupt what momentum it does achieve.

Mostly filmed in Bolivia, the scenery is absolutely gorgeous and for anyone thinking of traveling to Bolivia or who have fond memories of it, this is going to be a must-see. In fact, for those who just like Westerns or movies with magnificent scenery, this is one to keep an eye out for in general.

WHY RENT THIS: Shepard is terrific and perfectly cast. Rea is fine in support. Lovely Bolivian scenery.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Flashbacks bring the film to a grinding halt. Chemistry between Shepard and Noriega not up to snuff. A little too somber in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some rootin’, some tootin’ and some shootin’. There’s also a fair amount of cussin’.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The survival of Cassidy in the Bolivian shoot-out is based on actual rumors. The details on the supposed shoot-out are very vague and much of the evidence conflicts so it is entirely possible that the notorious outlaw survived.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of short films from Gil as well as an HD-Net special on the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $623,528 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE:
Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental/Streaming), Amazon (stream only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shootist
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Inherent Vice

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)


Beauty is only skin deep.

Beauty is only skin deep.

(2011) Thriller (Sony Classics) Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Alamo, Eduard Fernandez, Jose Luis Gomez, Bianca Suarez, Susi Sanchez, Barbara Lennie, Fernando Cayo, Chema Ruiz, Concha Buika, Ana Mena, Teresa Manresa, Fernando Iglesias, Agustin Almodovar, Miguel Almodovar, Marta R. Mahou, Carmen Machi. Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is something of an acquired taste. He has directed zany comedies and taut thrillers but none of his movies really fit into any neat little boxes. His movies tend to push boundaries, whether of things that are considered socially acceptable or of cinematic convention. You may not necessarily like all of his films but they will make an impression.

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a brilliant surgeon and medical researcher who is on the cusp of an amazing discovery – artificial skin that is flame retardant. His own wife had perished from injuries suffered in a fiery car crash so he has a personal stake in making this breakthrough. When he presents his results at a medical symposium it appears he may well be on his way to a Nobel Prize if things go the way that he hopes.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the good doctor has been performing illegal transgenetic experiments on humans. He is forbidden from continuing any further research on the subject. Of course, that’s not going to stop Dr. Ledgard, who on his secluded estate has been keeping a woman named Vera (Anaya). He has been grafting the artificial skin onto her body and he has gone too far to stop now. Through his loyal maid Marilla (Paredes) he dismisses the other servants and starts to step up testing on the skin.

Unfortunately, it’s about this time that Marilla’s criminal son Zeca (Alamo) turns up while Robert’s away and spies Vera on a closed circuit TV monitor and demands to see her in the flesh. When his mother refuses, he ties her up and rapes Vera, which clearly doesn’t sit well with Robert. These events will lead to an unveiling of secrets, including who Vera is and how she came to be the mad doctor’s captive.

Almodovar based this loosely on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet although he used a bundle of different influences as well, from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast to a number of literary sources which are listed during the end credit acknowledgements. There are a lot of different themes going on here, from medical hubris to personal obsession to the masks we adopt. Then again, Almodovar generally tends to deliver very layered films with themes that often invite controversy or at the very least post-screening discussion.

Banderas was an early Almodovar discovery in such films as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! although he hadn’t worked with the Spanish director in 21 years. Here he is at his best as the creepy, arrogant and psychotic scientist.  Dr. Ledgard believes he is doing good work, although not necessarily for humanity but certainly for his own needs. He is haunted by his dead wife and is literally trying to recreate her from the skin down. Vera is merely the conduit for his mad obsession. He becomes a kind of Dr. Frankenstein but in a modern medical sense. Almodovar handles that aspect rather clinically.

Like most of Almodovar’s films, the appeal isn’t going to be universal. Some will see this movie as way too strange and way too twisted for their own sensibilities and I can certainly understand that; there were times in the movie that I was a little uncomfortable myself and I tend to think of myself as pretty open-minded, cinematically speaking.

The movie’s ending isn’t going to brighten anybody’s day. Still, this is a really good movie for people who love to discuss the nuances of a film with friends afterwards. This is not only an intellectual exercise but an emotional one as well, with some visceral elements. The Skin I Live In isn’t the best of Almodovar’s films nor is it even his most squirm-inducing but it is the closest thing to a true horror film as he is ever likely to get.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting, twisted modern update of Frankenstein. Banderas at his creepy best.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too twisted for some. Kind of dreary ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very strong violence including a sexual assault, graphic nudity and sexuality, some drug use, disturbing images and rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the books acknowledged in the end credits as inspirational material (copies of which appear in the bedrooms of Dr. Ledgard and Vera respectively) are The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Angel at My Table by Janet Frame.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains footage from the New York premiere and an interview with the director conducted before a live audience.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.8M on a $13.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Without a Face
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Annabelle

Mama


So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry, David Fox, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Christopher Marren, Ray Kahnert, Hannah Cheesman, Julia Chantrey. Directed by Andres Muschietti

The bond between a mother and her child is something that simply can’t be broken. It is stronger than diamonds and carries its own gravitational pull that makes a black hole look like a refrigerator magnet. That bond is there for life – and some say, beyond.

This story starts with murder, of a man who loses it and kills his estranged wife and ex-partner and kidnaps his two children. He takes them, not quite intentionally, to a dilapidated cabin in the remote woods of Virginia called oddly enough Helvetia (with Mad Men-era retro furniture) where he intends to shoot them, and then himself. However fate – in the guise of a malevolent presence – intervenes.

Five years later, the two girls are still missing and their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) is still looking for them although his funds are running low – he’s been utilizing the inheritance from his successful brother. Lucas apparently “draws things” although it’s never really established whether he draws paintings or cartoons or whatnot. Anyway his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), a rocker chick who plays bass in a punk-edged indie rock band, is a little put off by her boyfriend’s obsession especially since she can’t get pregnant herself.

However quite accidentally Burnsie (Fox), the tracker that Lucas has hired for the task, stumbles on the cabin and finds the girls – Victoria (Charpentier), now eight and her sister Lilly (Nelisse) who is six. The two girls are nearly feral although Victoria seems to be recovering her ability to speak. Lilly, in particular, is nearly mute, moving in an eerie spider-like motion.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that two such young children could survive in an isolated cabin on their own for so long but nobody seems to be questioning that. In fact, their psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfus (Kash) thinks that in a stable home environment that the girls might achieve some normalcy. While Lucas’ Aunt Jean (Moffat) is anxious to get custody, Lucas is actually much closer to the girls and with some help from Dr. Dreyfus gets the judge (Kahnert) to agree once the University arranges for a nice suburban home for Lucas and Annabel to move into.

But things aren’t all My Little Pony in suburban Virginia. The girls are both extremely traumatized and look at Lucas and particularly Annabel with some wariness. They refer to an invisible entity they call Mama who looks after her – and apparently she’s dropped by the ‘burbs to keep an eye on her girls. And after Lucas is removed from the picture, it is up to Annabel – who neither wants the job nor thinks herself able to do it – to take care of two very difficult children.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the horror film. Annabel begins to bond with the two girls (in particular with Victoria) and this Mama doesn’t like at all, not in the slightest. Dr. Dreyfus isn’t much of a help – he has his own agenda which isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the girls. And Mama isn’t recognizing any agenda but her own which isn’t good news for Annabel or  the girls.

This is based on a short previously directed by Muschietti and was produced by fan favorite and all-around good guy Guillermo del Toro. Spanish horror tends to be really atmospheric and Muschietti has a flair for it, making the cabin look anachronistic and genuinely creepy. Everything from the movement of the actors which isn’t quite natural to the suburban setting which is deceptively ordinary contributes to the overall vibe that things aren’t right a’tall.

Enjoy Chastain in this role folks, because you won’t see her in this kind of movie ever again – or at least it’s very unlikely you will. Right now if I had to name the best actress working in Hollywood right now, today, this moment, it would be Jessica Chastain. She has that chameleon-like quality that Meryl Streep possesses that allows her to take on virtually any kind of role and not just make it hers but make it unique as well. Here she’s channeling her inner Joan Jett and gives Annabel a gamine like quality that is endearing with the immature feel of a teenage boy who hasn’t quite grown up yet. Annabel grows up a great deal during the course of the movie and Chastain makes those changes organic. You don’t often go to see a horror movie for the acting performances but this is one of those exceptions where you should.

Coster-Waldau, so excellent as Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones on HBO is solid here, reminding me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen. He plays the dual role of Luke and his doomed brother and wisely lets Chastain take center stage. He’s a terrific actor in his own right and has all sorts of leading man potential. In addition, the two young juvenile actresses do extremely well – Charpentier as the emotional center reaching for the mundane and Nelisse as Lilly who has one foot in the spirit world wherein Mama dwells.

Mama’s backstory is nothing to write home about and when she is revealed she isn’t all that impressive but when she moves through the floor or ceiling it’s chillingly effective. Mama needs to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the audience but in this case she doesn’t really inspire enough which is a hard feat I know but it would have made the movie exponentially more effective. As it is given Chastain’s performance this is a horror movie mainstream audiences should go see.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy in all the right places. Jessica Chastain is the best actress in Hollywood right now period. Nice ghostly effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Story a little bit convoluted. Final look of Mama is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty scary images some of which are pretty disturbing, some thematic issues and a few nasty scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally scheduled for a Halloween 2012 release, the movie got bumped up to January which proved to be a smart move as it recouped its entire production and marketing cost in its opening weekend, debuting at number one at the box office.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. Although the reviews are somewhat mixed, there are more positive than negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in Black

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Sorcerer and the White Snake

The Impossible (Lo imposible)


Mother and child reunion.

Mother and child reunion.

(2012) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Maura Etura, Geraldine Chaplin, Sonke Mohring, Ploy Jindachote, Johan Sundberg, Jan Roland Sundberg, Nicola Harrison . Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 was an event that captured the attention of the entire world. In little more than an instant the coastlines of Southeast Asia came flooding inland, taking with them debris and lives. More than 300,000 people lost their lives in one of the deadliest natural catastrophes of all time. Many of them were vacationers enjoying the sunshine for the holidays.

Henry (McGregor) and his wife Maria (Watts) – a doctor who has given up practicing medicine temporarily to raise her children – have checked into a beautiful Thai resort on the ocean. Their three children – the eldest, Lucas (Holland) who in the manner of kids approaching puberty basically doesn’t want anything to do with his family and tunes them out whenever possible with a pair of earbud headphones, the middle child Thomas (Joslin) who has a love for the heavens, and the youngest Simon (Pendergast) – are enjoying the sunshine of the pool and beach and the joy of Christmas presents.

Henry works in Japan and is concerned that someone has been hired to do his job, which may make him redundant. The family is considering moving home to England but that is a discussion for another day. The day after Christmas while the family is poolside, a gigantic wall of water taller than the roof of their resort rushes at them without warning. Henry is with his two youngest sons in the pool; Lucas is on the deck. Maria is by the glass wall of the pool deck. All are swept away in the frothing brown deluge.

Maria is bounced about in the raging tide like a rag doll. Tree branches and shards of glass slice into her and add a red hue to the brown waters. She manages to resurface and as the tide sweeps her away she sees Lucas and manages, after a good deal of trouble, to reunite with her son. The two huddle together as they wait miserably for the floodwaters to subside.

In the aftermath, all is silent. The two make for a tall tree they see towering over the landscape which has been flattened, like a petulant child had brushed everything off of a table with a careless sweep of his arm. Lucas sees a flap of skin hanging off his mother’s leg; she is grievously injured. They hear a child crying and Lucas is not inclined to rescue anybody, wanting to get his mother whose strength is rapidly fading, to a place as safe as possible should another wave hit the shore. After some gentle persuasion from his mom, they rescue a little Swedish toddler named Daniel (Johan Sundberg) and the three sit in a tree, awaiting rescue.

It eventually comes but there are no cars or transport in the area so Maria is dragged across the mud flats with Lucas clearing out debris ahead of the rescuers. The two are eventually taken from the small village they are brought to initially to a completely overwhelmed hospital in Phuket where it soon becomes apparent that Maria’s injuries are much more severe than it first appeared. Lucas becomes her guardian angel, but after Maria sends him off to help reunite people who had lost each other in the chaos, he returns to find her gone and a new person in her bed. It appears he is alone in the world.

But he’s not. Henry survived the disaster as well, and also found Thomas and Simon and is camping with them in the ruins of their resort. However, it is clear that the resort is uninhabitable plus the thread of further tsunamis caused by aftershocks make it imperative that the survivors be evacuated to higher ground. Henry reluctantly agrees to send his boys into the mountains but he cannot bring himself to leave until he has some idea of the fates of his wife and eldest son. He is assisted by the sympathetic  Karl (Mohring) whose family was on the beach that day and whose survival is unlikely at best.

Scattered around Thailand, not knowing what has become of one another, this family must somehow find a way to get through the chaos and find each other, but will all of them survive? And how will they have changed if they do reunite?

The movie is based on the real experiences of a Spanish family which has  been incomprehensibly switched to an English one; I supposed the producers thought that the movie would play better in English-speaking territories if the nationality was changed. I guess we all do what we have to do.

Fortunately this led to some superb casting. Watts in particular stands out here (and she has the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations to prove it). She spends much of the movie flat on her back in a hospital bed and undergoes privations that a lot of other actresses might handle with less forthrightness. There was a scene early on when she and Holland are trudging towards that tree when he points out to her that her tank top strap is ripped; her breast is hanging out and it is in none too good shape. She ties up her top and without much fanfare continues; the way Watts handles it is without self-consciousness. She has other things more important than modesty on her mind. Maria’s character is in full-on maternal mode and Watts captures it perfectly.

Holland has to shoulder much of the acting load; as his mother’s injuries grow in gravity, Lucas must grow up quickly and become her protector and advocate, all the while grieving for his dad and brothers with whom he had a fractious relationship at best. We watch a child grow into a man before our very eyes and it is quite moving.

McGregor gives a solid performance but is given not nearly as much to work with as Watts. Most of the time he’s showing despair and searching for his family while yelling their names in stubborn desperation. He does have one scene where he’s calling home to let them know he and the two youngest are okay and he’s searching for Maria and Lucas…he’s using a borrowed phone and he completely breaks down, all the stress and fear and pain overwhelming him. He finally hangs up, not willing to waste what little battery life is left on the phone – and the phone’s owner extends the phone to him gently, telling him he can’t leave off that call like that. It’s a powerful scene and if only McGregor were given more like it he’d probably have an Oscar nomination as well. But basically from that point, Da Queen was misty-eyed for the rest of the movie.

A word about the tsunami sequence itself; it’s impressive. Done with a combination of practical and computer generated effects, it is as harrowing a scene as you’re likely to see. It is one thing to watch home video of the tsunami hitting a resort made by a cell phone; it is quite another to see it like this where you get not only a sense of the size of the wave but of its power.

Some critics have complained that all the victims in the film seem to be white which isn’t true; if you watch carefully in the hospital and refugee sequences you’ll see plenty of Thai faces – the film is focusing on a single family which does happen to be European but then again the filmmakers are also European. I think most thinking filmgoers realize that there were more Asian victims in the tsunami than European ones.

This is a very emotional movie that is going to make every mom who sees it a wreck and a whole lot of dads as well. The experience is an incredible one and all the more so because it is real. I do hope that when the DVD is released we’ll get to hear from the actual family (a photo of them is shown during the end credits) because quite frankly I’m interested to hear how realistically the film depicted what happened to them. Nonetheless this is a movie worth looking for; it’s not on a lot of theater screens sadly, although Watts’ nomination for Best Actress might generate a little more interest. It deserves it.

REASONS TO GO: Powerfully emotional and brutal in places. Great performances from Watts, McGregor and Holland. Tsunami scenes are amazing.

REASONS TO STAY: Harrowing in places. Unnecessarily Anglicized.

FAMILY VALUES:  The scene of the tsunami hitting the resort is extremely intense; there are also some graphic depictions of injuries incurred in the disaster. There are also several shots in which there is some nudity as people’s clothes were knocked literally off of their bodies in the deluge.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the extras were survivors of the actual tsunami.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The reviews are strongly favorable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Krakatoa, East of Java

ASTRONOMY LOVERS: Young Thomas has an interest in the stars and there is an interlude where he and the Old Woman (Chaplin) discuss the death of stars while watching the night sky.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Woman