Klaus


This is not your daddy’s Santa Claus.

(2019) Animated Feature (Netflix) Starring the voices of Jason Schwartzmann, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Norm McDonald, Joan Cusack, Will Sasso, Sergio Pablos, Mila Brener, Neda Margrethe Labba, Sydney Brower, Teddy Blum, Emma Shannon, Kendall Joy Hall, Julian Zane, Amanda Philipson, Finn Carr, Tucker Meek, Hailey Hermida, Jaeden Bettencourt. Directed by Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martinez López

 

We’ve all seen origin stories of the big guy in Red before. No, I’m not talking about Shazam! I’m talking about the real big guy. Santa. Claus, even.

This delightful animated feature has the distinction of being the first animated feature to be distributed by streaming giant Netflix (after a brief theatrical run) and it will have the added bonus of making animated feature aficionados wish that Netflix would have made it more widely available in theaters, because the animation is that gorgeous, with a hand-painted look that hasn’t been seen since the halcyon days of Disney, which is where director Sergio Pablos cut his teeth, by the by.

The film is about Jesper (Schwartzmann), the indolent scion of a politically connected and wealthy family. Jesper, the son of a Central European country’s postmaster general, is coasting his way through life, shirking work whenever possible and looking forward to using his family’s political connections to maintain his lifestyle of personal butlers, espressos on demand and silk sheets. However, his father has different ideas. He exiles his son to Smeerensburg (which is based on a Finnish town that no longer exists), a town above the Arctic circle where no letters have been mailed in years.

It turns out there’s a reason for that. The town is run by two families that have been feuding for centuries, the Krum family whose matriarch (Cusack) absolutely hates the patriarch (Sasso) of the Ellingboe family. The two family heads have recruited the children into a vicious cycle of hate and pranks which gives the film a kind of Looney Tunes feel and also a kind of warped satisfaction as the lazy Jesper is often the butt of the children’s tricks.

Through a convoluted set of circumstances, Jesper meets Klaus (Simmons), a lonely and isolated woodsman who has deliberately isolated himself for reasons that are made clear later. He has a gift for wood carving and eventually delivers a toy to a young child whose melancholy drawing touched his heart. Jesper, recognizing a scam when he sees one, induces the kids to write letters to Klaus to get him to send them toys; he just needs six thousand of them to be released from his exile. He utilizes Alva (Jones), a teacher who came to a town where none of the kids attend school, to teach the kids to write letters. She has resorted to converting the school to a fish market in order to make ends meet and save up enough to get out of that crazy town. But as the kindness of Klaus begins to affect the children, Mrs. Krum and Mr. Ellingboe begin to plot to end this change which threatens the status quo.

The movie starts out a bit slowly and the early Looney Tunes section might pale in comparison with classic cartoons, but it picks up steam as it goes along and never fails to charm. Kids will be entranced with the lovely images and adults will find the movie heart-tugging – the ending in fact is likely to generate more than a few tears from sensitive viewers. I, myself, loved it.

As Christmas films go, this one is certainly superior to the glut of direct-to-home video projects that make up the bulk of what’s available at this time of year. Klaus is the kind of movie you and your kids will want to see again and again, year after year. That’s the kind of Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is magical. The film is charming throughout, with the ending being absolutely wonderful.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a bit of a slog during the first third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor as well as mild animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first hand-drawn animated film to make use of CGI lighting techniques to give it almost a 3D feel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Santa Claus is Coming to Town
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy, The Dog and The Clown

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

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