“Side effects” – One part suspense, one part Jude Law and a pinch of Hitch…

It’s with a deep sense of regret I’m writing these words, because – unless he changes his mind – Steven Soderbergh is not going to direct any more movies, and if “Side effects” were supposed to be his last words, then so be it. At least he went down with his pride left intact… mostly.

It’s rare these days to enjoy a good detective story – thrilling and suspenseful. It seems that the Hitchcockian way has been completely abandoned in favor of cheap plots, dubious character development, violence, jump scares and pointless twists. That’s right. Ever since M. Night Shyamalan came along, a good story has no longer been needed to achieve a good commercial result. One needed only a revolting twist at the end. Therefore, many thrillers would become reliant on them to the point of forgetting about the structure of the plot, because it was all going to be OK when the twist is revealed. Not cool at all, I might say.

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Therefore, I welcomed “Side effects” with arms wide open. In short, the newest and last big screen picture signed by Steve Soderbergh pays due homage to Hitchcockian traditions. We are introduced to a trio of characters: Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, who – post Lisbeth Salander – looks shockingly attractive), who struggles with depression while waiting for her incarcerated husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to come back home and help get their lives back together, and Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) – Emily’s psychiatrist. We meet Emily when she’s about to get her hubbie back from prison and just as they’re attempting to resume their married life and get back on track, Emily’s long suppressed depression finally manifests itself in a form of suicidal tendencies. Following a failed attempt at her own life she ends up in a hospital where she meets Dr Banks, who offers her counselling to treat her now rather obvious and severe depression. It quickly becomes apparent that Emily’s case is like none other as she doesn’t respond well to any medication or treatment, so – in the throes of desperation and following Emily’s suggestion – Banks prescribes her a totally new anti-depressive that’s just been released on the market. And it quickly turns out that this new drug – Ablixa – has very severe side effects.

This is the point from which the story takes flight into a downward spiral wherein Dr Banks needs to risk everything (his wife, his stepson, his practice, his reputation and his life) in order to solve the mystery of Ablixa, understand and cure Emily and save himself from becoming a victim to whomever is pulling the strings.

Now, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed “Side effects”. That was exactly what I needed and I think it was a good way for Soderbergh to part ways with the big screen cinema. The story was well-crafted and carefully paced, so that the detective aspect of the plot was actually very engaging. I think that the very Hitchcockian archetype of ‘the wrong man’ was perfectly exploited here and Jude Law did his job very well.

 

However, I wouldn’t be myself if I failed to point out that Jude Law’s character and the whole story as a result (he is after all the pivotal pawn in this mysterious game of chess) would have been far more engaging if it hadn’t been for Vinessa Shaw – the actress portraying Banks’ wife – Deirdre. I mean, you can’t really find a more lifeless piece of wood of an actress than that, which makes the whole movie suffer across the board whenever she is around. I think, what we were supposed to see was how the doctor’s life slowly falls apart as he becomes more and more involved with the mystery of Ablixa, but instead we witnessed a wife so appallingly annoying and whiny that I literally cheered for her leaving the screen once and for all. I secretly hoped for her being hit by a bus or something, because she was simply a spanner thrown in the gears of a perfectly running suspenseful story.

Now that I finally got that off my chest, I can only congratulate both Jude Law and Rooney Mara on their very convincing work. I am not entirely sure what to say about the very cold and calculated performance of Catherine Zeta-Jones as the distant and enigmatic Dr Siebert, and that’s because something tells me that she was just playing herself there. But why should I bother? It fitted the story perfectly, so all is fine with the world again.

“Side effects” ended up a very good thriller with a detective slant and a well-fitting ending that did not overshadow the rest of the plot with its twisty-ness held at acceptable levels. I think Soderbergh did a very fine job here (again with a helping hand from Scott Z. Burns – author of “Contagion”, who wrote the script) by presenting us with a film that touches on a very important subject in these recent times – namely our reliance on pharmaceuticals. The movie exemplifies our inner fears and phobias that we sometimes associate with modern medicine. I think everybody knows at least one person who would identify themselves with the sentiments that “Side effects” brings up. It’s almost every day I hear about how big pharmaceutical companies are plotting conspiracies to get us all killed or worse – zombiefied by their secretively addictive medicines, and how the only thing that counts for them is monetary profit, or how they have no respect for us – their customers.

I think Soderbergh’s “Side effects” touch on these problems in a very subtle way by using our own fears to fuel the story, thus making it even more compelling. And to my vivacious satisfaction, the film ends up straying away from making any political pseudo-scientific nonsense statements on the matter, which saved Soderbergh from looking like a semi-educated judgmental fundamentalist conspiracy theorist, which I hope he’s not.

In the end, I have to say that I hope Soderbergh changes his mind. Fair enough, “Side effects” is a very good way to leave the scene on a good note, but still I secretly hope he would come back and give me another ride like this one. All things considered, I think “Side effects” was a very good movie and I’m sure as hell that if The Great Alfred was still alive, he’d gladly direct it himself – and with a similar net result. Maybe he’d give Jude Law’s character to a woman, but other than that, “Side effects” by Hitchcock would look more or less the same.

“Stoker” – It runs in the family…

Now, that was a film I was looking forward to seeing. Park Chan-Wook’s work was always quite a challenge for me and the minute I learned he was going to direct his American debut, I knew straight away it was going to be something to remember. Anyone familiar with Chan-Wook’s “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for…” films would know exactly what I mean here. I watched them all back in the days of my infatuation with far-east cinema. Yep, I watched them, I loved them and I had a hard time convincing myself to watch them again. That’s the type of cinema you’re in for when you’re about to see something with Park Chan-Wook’s stamp of approval on it.

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Right, so let’s get to the crux of it – the story. As you probably know, it is the most important feature in any Chan-Wook’s film. Right after it goes the imagery, but I shall get to that later on. On the subject of the storytelling – it is imperative for his films to kick you in the groin and laugh at you while you’re on the ground squirming in pain and discomfort. If you saw “Oldboy”, then you know that feeling more than you’d like to. “Stoker”, however, doesn’t even come close to that level, but it does provide a solid two hours of disturbing and uncomfortable experience. Maybe it’s the fact it was penned for your average westerner and in Korea things are more likely to be taken to extremes… I don’t know.

Interestingly, the script was written by someone I would never expect to come up with something quite like that – none other than Wentworth Miller. If you don’t recall the name, perhaps “Prison Break” would ring any bells. That’s right; the actor (by the way, he has devoted most of his career to stage acting) who played Michael Scofield proudly stands behind the “Stoker’s” story line.

So, what is it all about? “Stoker” tells us a story of a young adolescent girl – India (Mia Wasikowska), whose life is terribly disturbed by her father’s death – right on her 18th birthday. She is left completely broken by the fact that her dad has died in a car accident. She hates her mother (Nicole Kidman) and she is a rather awkward teenager in her own right – so she simply ends up alone in her world, devoid of her father, with whom she had a very special relationship. India’s life gets even more complicated by a sudden reappearance of her father’s long lost brother – Charlie (Matthew Goode), who shows up unexpectedly at the funeral and from that point onward, he forces his way into India’s and her mother’s lives. Nobody knows anything about Charlie’s past or his intentions and it quickly becomes apparent that his plans are of the evil kind.

“Stoker” isn’t exactly your regular family drama, nor it is a regular crime story. It is, in short, a very weird – and I’d say kinky – experience. It required a bit of post-screening thinking for me to get certain things right in my head. For instance, it was almost impossible to immediately grasp how complicated India’s situation was. It wasn’t clearly laid out in the open. I think that India’s grief had something to do with the fact that her father’s death left her in some sort of a limbo – in the nothingness that lies between adolescence and adulthood. It was her father who every year would give her a pair of shoes for her birthday. Always the same childish kind, but a tad bigger and because he died, he never got the chance to let his daughter become a woman.

Instead, life sends India her mysterious uncle, whom she never knew. And it is him who somehow takes over the reins dropped by India’s father and who starts wearing his shoes around the house. This is where “Stoker” becomes really unpleasant, because we get to see how Charlie attempts to establish an intimate connection both with India and her mother. This bond becomes the catalyst for India to break out of her shell and become a full-grown woman. But who she is, or who she’d become is a whole different story. It will soon turn out that Charlie’s predatory influence will have a profound impact on India’s life.

 

I have to say that “Stoker” leaves your sense of humanity a bit disturbed when the screening is over. My mind was totally occupied with turmoil of mixed emotions, but not towards the movie itself. I think that “Stoker” pricked my moral code in some way and its unsettling imagery somehow affected my psyche… which is good, because that’s what you’d expect from Park Chan-Wook. Every character and every scene in “Stoker” are filthy in some unspoken way. Therefore, all throughout the film I had this weird feeling in the back of my head, as if I was doing something wrong and forbidden. All that gets further exacerbated with every scene, from India’s awkward way of being, through Charlie’s lurking in the shadows like Norman Bates and watching India in his voracious way, India’s sexual initiations and her sudden horrifying emergence… By the end of the film, “Stoker” is a tsunami of agitating images which drift further and further away from what we consider normal or acceptable.

What also helps the movie stick with you after you’ve left the cinema is how it was shot and imaged. At some point I believe that dialogue in this film becomes secondary and you could probably continue watching while not paying attention to what the characters say at all. Every shot in “Stoker” looks meticulously planned and perfectly executed. All the angles are right and in retrospect I would say that there was no scene in this film that didn’t serve a purpose there. It was almost as if the director instinctively knew how to merge these scenes together, in order to amplify the symphony of unpleasant dread that “Stoker” definitely is. I dare say it is pure artistry, because it’s near impossible to design something like that in a mathematical and logical way without making the film look artificial.

All things considered, I think “Stoker” was a phenomenal piece that should surely put Park Chan-Wook in the Hollywood landscape. At the same time, the film retains Chan-Wook’s very distinctive touch, yet doped with a fair amount of Hitchcock’s influence. I mean, the way characters are written (with Charlie looking to me as if he escaped from “Psycho”) and the way the mystery hangs in there like a sword ready to fall on our heads at any moment – they all scream Hitchcock to me. Nonetheless, Park Chan Wook’s brush ascertains once and for all that “Stoker” is, after all, his own creation and should be remembered as such – it was unforgettable.

Shortcake #7 – “Rampage: Project Vermillion”

This week has not been exactly normal and due to several unforeseen circumstances my writing got terribly disrupted. Anyways, I managed to go and see “Stoker” and I intended to have the review written and up online by now, but hey…

Meanwhile, why don’t you have a look at “Rampage: Project Vermillion ? It’s a very nice short that takes the monster movie genre with a small twist. It’s done on a budget which shows, but in my view, the nature of the special effects give “Rampage” a nostalgic and hipsterish gojira-esque feel. However, the Cloverfield-like way of shooting the monster sequences (shaky camera movement and out-of-focus imagery) conceals any shortcomings of the technical department and gives the whole movie a modern look. Surprisingly enough, it’s not the effects, but a simple conversation that takes up the bulk of “Rampage”. A conversation that implies we’d get to see more of Justin Calen Chenn’s short-monstrosity-extravaganza. I mean seriously: you just gave me a slice of cake… A very good cake… You can’t just take it away now. In an ideal world I’d like to see this short turn into a series of at least three films. So I guess, we should start donating money to Justin in order to make this happen, right?

That’ll be all for now. I think this might be a new formula for my Shortcake column: a shorter, more compact, and hopefully starting now – a bit more frequent event. Honestly, too many quality shorts are slipping to my fingers and I can’t write about all of them if I’m doing it once a week. I’ll think about how I want to go about it, but I think short films will start making appearances in here more often.

Off to write that “Stoker” review. I’m out.

A wife that refused to die hard – the story of Holly Gennero

Has anyone ever thought what it was like to be married to a man like John McClane? Well… Marriage, like most things, has at least two ways of looking at it. And I’m sure as hell no-one has even bothered to listen to Holly’s side of things.

With the newest installment of the “Die Hard” series, came a poop storm of reviews. I should know, I shared my two cents on what I think of diluting and desecrating the best action movie ever made by over-extending it into a pointless franchise. I don’t want to reiterate here, how destructive to the series was endowing its protagonist with superhuman powers, so a shocking rotten tomatoes score of 16% is almost self-explanatory here.

However, some time ago whilst sitting at work on a Friday afternoon and contemplating the notion of moving certain responsibilities for the following Monday, a thought lit up inside my head. That thought instigated some sort of a mild schizophrenic episode on my part wherein I had a conversation with myself on the subject of ‘why Die Hard ended up being a pathetic excuse for what it used to be’. Apart from the obvious ‘money, money, money’ reason, I dare say herein, in the geekiest manner possible, that John McClane has brought it on himself and from a point of view of character development it was simply inevitable.

In order to provide evidence for such bold claims of mine (yeah, I know – nobody cares, what I’m doing here is pointless) I gleefully proceeded to re-watch the original “Die Hard”… and the sequel… and the third one… and even the fourth one, even though it was a bit of a struggle, and after a bit of consideration I have to say that the key to understanding the inevitability of Die Hard’s demise is John McClane’s wife – Holly Gennero.

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Interesting piece of trivia – I think nobody knows how to spell Holly’s name properly – even the guys that made the first Die Hard. Bonnie Bedelia (the actress portraying her) was credited as ‘Gennaro’ at the end of the film; however the name on her office door said ‘Gennero’. The computer touchscreen in the lobby of the Nakatomi Plaza didn’t really clarify anything because it showed ‘Gennaro’ at first, which changed into ‘Gennero’ upon being touched by John. Plus, Holly’s driving licence that the baddie in the fourth Die Hard had on his screen showed ‘Gennero’ yet again. There.

Right, to cut a long story short, Holly and John were not exactly your textbook couple. John – a devoted police officer whose Irish-blood-pumping heart was too big for his own good, and Holly – an overly ambitious lady hell-bent on proving everyone (herself included) that she could accomplish anything, even at the expense of her relationship and children. That’s how it looks at first glance, doesn’t it? John’s the guy who follows his workaholic wife to LA and makes sacrifices for her, rescues her time and again from the grips of death and in the end she still gives him the finger and leaves him. Not only that, she also uses their children and puts them against their own father (which is a big no-no when you are a parent, right?), so that poor John was left alone, divorced, unable to connect with his children, on the verge of alcoholism, cynical and depressed. Wrong.

What if I told you that we’ve been led astray by the film makers who wanted us to believe this pathetic story of a good guy that always found himself in a wrong place at a wrong time? What if it was not the trouble that found McClane, but it was McClane who looked for trouble and his wife was the first who noticed it and decided to make a run for it?

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Let’s back up all the way to 1987. Holly just about took a highly powerful executive job in Nakatomi Corporation and had to relocate from NY to LA. She took her kids with her and pretty much left her hubbie to his own devices. What could possibly be the reason for it? Surely, she couldn’t just pack up and leave the father of her children without a valid reason, otherwise it would make her look like a mean little ice queen. If you read between the lines you’d notice that John was far from a perfect husband. He sure looked like a lovable nice fella, a cliché cop carrying his family photos around with him, but he did have a dark side, which Holly did imply in her conversations with John. These would point towards John being a very strong figure in their relationship, too strong even. What if John McClane was abusive and controlling and Holly was just not having it after so many years? Is that at all possible? I’d say – very.

In my opinion, John McClane was a violent and controlling husband who tried at all cost to tie down his wife to a role of a child-bearing housewife, because it was the only way he knew how to form and run a family. That kind of ‘macho’ attitude could not have simply grown on him, so it was most likely inherited from his own father. Anyway, John grew up to be a father and a husband you are not allowed to say ‘no’ to and obedience is the only way to survive in a relationship with him. Therefore, Holly – being a smart woman – decided she would not spend the rest of her life in shackles, so she got up and left. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if her landing a job on the other side of the country was planned from the get-go.

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I would even go a step further than that. I dare say that John McClane’s dictatorial way of life was not confined to the family, but it spilled over to his job. The way he spoke to high-ranking police officers outside Nakatomi, or the way he spoke of his own superiors back in NY is the best evidence for it. In short, already then John McClane was a character that always knew best, did not respond to authority and took pleasure from being in charge. But that was only the beginning…

Even though the traumatic events at Nakatomi Plaza made him understand that his family could not be handled in an authoritative manner, things have gotten way worse in “Die Harder”. Although we saw John make amends to his wife – after all, he made the sacrifice of moving to LA with her in order to let her fulfil her professional dreams whilst saving their marriage – I think John’s sudden emergence as a national hero only hardened his belief that he was always right and that he was always surrounded by idiots.

I’m sorry, but there’s no other explanation for that, than an early onset of god complex and the events at Dulles Airport are a testament to that claim. The guy walked into an airport, parked illegally, had a problem with his car being towed, demanded his parking ticket to be voided, violated security protocol by forcing a janitor to let him into the restricted area, engaged in a gunfight, shot and killed two people, disrupted the departure service and topped it all off with calling the police incompetent (all in 20 minutes). However right he might have been, he was still out of place, but he was having none of it. Seriously, how do you argue with a guy who barges into your place of work, takes orders only from himself, brings an entire airport to a standstill, calls you an idiot and acts like he owns the place? You can’t. And how would you call a person like that? I think ‘an asshole’ would be an appropriate definition.

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The question remains: would you want to have anything to do with a guy like that? I sure wouldn’t  I think John McClane grew so confident that the only thing he needed to be Superman was a red cape that it became near impossible to live with him. As a result, his authoritarian character eventually spilled back into his family. He was just a mess, because in the end, everyone around him grew tired of it. Holly finally said that enough was enough and moved out, John moved back to New York (or maybe he was forced to leave, because no-one wanted to work with him) and his marriage slowly dissolved. Then, “Die Hard 3” happened.

John – a full-blown alcoholic still living in denial of his shortcomings – got involved in a game orchestrated with a sole purpose of making him the center of the world. As much as I admire the poetic justice, the timing could not have been worse, because by the time Simon bit the dust, John was certain he was in fact the center of the universe. After all, he saved the day – again – and he was the only person who could do it. Without him none of it would have worked. Without him people would have died. He was not only a hero – he was a messiah.

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And that was the end of Die Hard. The minute John McClane realized that nothing and no-one could stop him, there was no turning back and the series was headed for disaster. He ceased to be the every-man caught with his pants down, but he became a superhero. From that point onward, he genuinely believed that any crisis demanded his attention. Otherwise, he would have just delivered Matt Farrell to the authorities as promised and gone about his day (in Die Hard 4). He wouldn’t also have gone to Russia with a sole purpose of stirring up trouble. Normal people would probably go through diplomatic channels, but not John. He knows best, he doesn’t trust anyone; therefore it is imperative for him to take matters into his own hands.

The saddest part of it all is that his messiah complex is most likely going to spread onto Lucy and John Jr. – his children – and if no-one intervenes they will follow suit down the path of self-destruction. They will never be able to form normal families and will surely develop the same arrogant attitude towards everyone and everything. Hence, I cannot anticipate anything good coming out of continuing the Die Hard saga. If anything, someone else will join the club of ‘The Victims of the McClane clan’. We’ve got Holly, we’ve got Matt Farrell. Who else will become prey of this dysfunctional family?

“Fear and Desire” – Stanley Kubrick’s baby steps

Not very often one has the opportunity to watch something quite like that. Now, however, courtesy of Lovefilm Instant, I got to see the very first feature shot by the great Stanley Kubrick“Fear and Desire”. And it is something special, to say the least.

Stanley Kubrick was not the most prolific of directors. He was well known for almost OCD-like attention to detail and perfectionism. He thought – just as the great Alfred Hitchcock – that his next piece needed to be better than his last one. Kubrick directed 13 feature films and 3 short documentaries in his lifetime and it took him on average 4.1 year to release a new movie. However, on the span of 36 years of his film making career his process got progressively more and more time-consuming, to which a 12-year-long period of silence between “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes wide shut” can testify most accurately. Kubrick’s approach towards cinema certainly had its clear advantages, because none of his works can be classified as sub-par. Although in some circles “2001” is referred to as a ‘overrated’ (even though it clearly kick-started what we know now as sci-fi) and “The Shining “ garnered two nominations for the very first Razzie Awards, we can all safely assume that Kubrick’s legendary focus and perfectionism earned him his place among the gods of cinema. Every genre Kubrick touched, he redefined… but we all have to start somewhere.

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Just as I did with Chris Nolan’s “Following”, I think I would like to say a few words on “Fear and Desire” – the first film Kubrick made. He was only 25 years old when he decided he wanted to film something different than a documentary. He borrowed some money from his uncle, took his savings (which added up to around 10 thousand dollars), got a group of friends together, hired 5 Mexican guys to carry his equipment (true story), and headed out to the wild in order to shoot “Fear and desire”.

In short, “Fear and desire” tells a story of a group of soldiers that crashed somewhere behind the enemy lines and are trying to get back to safety. While they are trying to come up with a plan to do so, they learn that an enemy general and his close associates are stationed nearby. Therefore, they decide to try and assassinate him in order to help out their own country. It’s nowhere near your usual war film. It’s very metaphorical – almost too metaphorical, although spelled out a bit loud. The way the story is told, it resembles Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. The majority of the story takes place inside the characters’ minds, which slows down the pace a notch; it’s not a bad thing at all – “Apocalypse Now”, anyone?

Now, I don’t think I can (or should, for that matter) review an amateur film that was made 60 years ago. It would be inappropriate to pass judgment on it, simply because I am in no capacity to understand the reality of the early 50’s in terms of its cinema. Now that I look at films, I look at them and judge them against a body of art that spans a century. Bear in mind that in 1953 that body of films was less than half of what we know now. So it is only fair not to say anything about the film’s production value or questionable acting. It was the 50’s and let us leave it at that.

On the other hand, what I can say now is that “Fear and desire” – being a quintessential amateur piece – showed me a tiny glimpse of the genius. It’s in no way a fantastic film; it’s rather tiresome, but still “Fear and desire” contains that little grain of something that with time grew and blossomed into a phenomenal talent. The way certain scenes were shot, the use of close-up photography and the narrative, all allowed me to understand that it was indeed Kubrick who stood behind the camera, though I cannot really say that I would have guessed who directed it, had I not known it beforehand. I’d say that it’s all too subtle to identify and I’m not that well-versed in the subject (yet).

All things considered, if – like me – you know full well what you are about to watch, “Fear and desire” makes up for a fantastic hour of your time. Let’s be honest here – it’s piece of history. And prior to 2012 it was almost impossible to see it. I should say at this point that Kubrick, once he was well-established, grew so ashamed of his own debut that he went out of his way to make sure no-one would see it ever again. He would allegedly collect various copies of “Fear and Desire” and keep them out of public’s reach. Now that he’s long gone, we have the pleasure to witness Kubrick’s baby steps ourselves.

And I have to say – “Fear and desire” is nowhere near as bad as Kubrick made it out to be in various interviews. I mean, it’s an amateur film made for a cheap buck, but it is after all an important piece of a puzzle that Kubrick’s mind most certainly was. Once you’ve watched it, you should immediately realize that Kubrick’s journey towards immortality was quite rocky and it didn’t start off with a bang. Even though you could clearly identify the elements of Kubrick’s style in it, “Fear and desire” should remain a testament of human perseverance and focus in context of things that came next. After all, no-one would expect that a career that peaked with “Full Metal Jacket” could have been ignited by a film like that. Now I do and my respect for Stanley Kubrick has only grown because of it.

Shortcake #6 – “Tomorrow 6:30” and “Mum”

Look what I found on Twitter! On second thought, I don’t think it’s an appropriate way to call it. Taking into account the sheer volume of quality films that steamroll through Twitter every second, I should probably say ‘Look, I found a thing, but there’s probably a million things that I missed when I wasn’t looking’. Anyways, I think I should be doing this more often as tonight I had to really sit down and think what to write about. I don’t want this little column of mine to be meaningless, I want the shorts I find and want to talk about to have their chance to be seen on their own. And listing a whole bunch of stuff in one sitting isn’t going to accomplish that.

This time I had a tough time shortlisting the shorts (sic!) I wanted to highlight. I still have a bunch of left-over material that just keeps piling up, so definitely I’ll have to consider showing them more often. After a bit of thinking I figured I’d devote today’s post to two pieces that struck a personal chord within me.

The first shortie of the day is “Tomorrow 6:30”. It’s rather on the longer side (23 minutes) but it’s definitely worth the time. For one thing, if you live in the so-called western world, you probably don’t get many chances to have a look at what the Middle East really is like – normal. “Tomorrow 6:30” shows how a young man Farid, who is about to leave Lebanon and pursue his dreams abroad, spends his last night before departing. It turns out that making a move like that is not as easy as it sounds. Farid has to realize that his life will never be the same and moreover it is already starting to change.

This particular piece feels very personal to me as I too once went through something similar. I guess anyone who decided to leave their home country in order to find their place on Earth could relate to Farid somehow. You’d know how difficult it is to leave all your friends and family behind. It’s even harder once you realize that like in case of Farid’s, it goes both ways. After all, he wasn’t the only one who left. He may be the one physically moving out, but – in accordance with the theory of relativity – the whole world leaves him too and moves in the opposite direction.

The other little gem I’d like to include here is “Mum” – a beautiful picture about the importance of memories. I don’t know how to describe it without spoiling it, because the story here is of secondary importance. It’s just emotion caught on tape (or its digital equivalent). “Mum” is just a reminder of how complex and difficult a mother-son relationship really is. Probably every mum knows that their son’s love is never out there in the open. It’s almost always awkward and so it is here when a mum and her adult son take a trip together (just as they used to do in the past).

“Mum” is just a fantastic (almost tear-jerking) reminder of how transient and uncertain our lives are. Therefore, we need to learn how to let things go and make peace with ourselves, as our lives are always in a state of flux and we can never have the luxury of stability.

To sum up, I had a phenomenal time watching “Tomorrow 6:30” and “Mum”. Even though they are clearly different, they somehow manage to touch on the same subjects of maternal love, loneliness, abandonment and change in life; from completely different angles, but still… That’s why I think it’s OK to put them side by side.

Enjoy.

“Mama” – Tripped on the last hurdle

“Mama” could be a perfect example of what can happen to a talented man if the circumstances are right. If you think about it, 4 years ago Andrés Muschetti most likely did not even dream about a possibility of being handed a multimillion dollar budget to make a full feature film. Add also the fact that he would get to direct one of the most promising (and now recognized thanks to her phenomenal role in “Zero Dark Thirty”) actresses of her generation – Jessica Chastain – and top it all off with a persona like Guillermo del Toro leading his project from the producer’s end. If he had said he would become a successful Hollywood director by 2013, no-one would have believed him. Well, now they have to…

Directorial debut is a risky endeavor  Someone’s trusted your talent enough to put his money and reputation on the line in order for you to have a chance to shine. The stakes are high, because no-one knows you and the only person that people would recognize would be the producer who paid for your party. If you’re lucky enough and your script is good, or if maybe people who want you to succeed pull some strings, someone relatively known will get signed to star in your thing. But that’s it. If you cock it up, their reputations will be damaged, you’ll piss in someone’s resumé (let’s face it, how many actors have at least one performance in a dodgy movie under their belts… all of them?), the studio and the producers will lose money and you will never get a second chance, because life’s a female dog.

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Fortunately enough, Muschetti managed to woo enough people to make his debut a commercial success and now he’s already signed to direct his next film. Much to my disappointment, however, he failed to woo me. Well, he did take me on a good date, but he managed to ruin everything before a good-night kiss. I’m getting ahead of myself…

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from “Mama” when I sat down in the cinema. I love a good horror story and I know a bad one when I see it. So, when the end credits rolled and the lights went back on I knew full well. It was not great, it was not bad… It was fine. And that is not good enough for a genre movie.

If you have seen the short film, on which “Mama” is based (watch here) you’d know that its power lied within the uncertainty. We didn’t know who mama was, we didn’t know what it wanted, and we only knew that it was there and that it wanted something from the girls. And that’s where the horror comes from. This is what subconsciously fuels our fear – not knowing. So, the minute I learned that “Mamá” was being adapted into a full-grown feature horror, I was intrigued. I wanted to experience the same horror in its final form. I think it was a reasonable assumption on my part because the short film is merely a sequence without a story, so there must have been something interesting behind it worth translating into the language of film.

“Mama” basically tells a story of two little girls (3 and 1 years old) whose father, after murdering their mom, kidnaps them with intent to kill them as well. He finds a cabin in the woods somewhere near Richmond (Virginia) to be a perfect place to put an end to his family in a poetic way, however, before he gets the chance to kill his defenseless children, he is killed by some sort of entity (that is definitely not human nor animal). Fast forward five years; the girls are found in the same cabin by their uncle – father’s (twin?) brother. Having lived five years in the wilderness they appear dehumanized to say the least. They don’t speak, but growl and moan instead, they run on all fours and they have almost completely forgotten about who they used to be. The uncle (together with his somehow reluctant girlfriend – Jessica Chastain) decides to take the challenge of giving the girls the home and family they deserve with a hope that they would learn how to be human again. The couple soon start to suspect that along with the girls someone else has entered their lives. Someone only the girls can see and refer to as ‘mama’.

 

That sounds like a perfectly ok horror story, doesn’t it? We have a house, a couple, children who are scary in their own wicked way and the unknown evil that will do everything to keep the girls to itself. I have to say that throughout the bulk of the movie I was very positive about it. The mood was just right and even without the jump-scares (that are still quite abundant in the genre) I felt terrified most of the time. The beautifully portrayed scenery amplified the horror perfectly. The girls (especially the younger one) made me feel uneasy with their very convincing acting and Jessica Chastain took the lead in a very subtle way without overshadowing anything and anyone. I loved the way Muschetti managed to incorporate the sequence from the short movie and I loved how ‘Mama’ was portrayed. Her disfigured, inhuman body and most diabolical movement made me feel uncomfortable even after I got used to her.

That’s what usually happens, right? Be it “Child’s play”, “Nightmare on Elm Street”, or anything else for that matter, after the initial terror, sooner or later, we grow accustomed to that scary little bad guy. And by the end of the movie, we are perfectly ok with it. I have to say that Mama continued her reign of terror right until the very ending – right until the climax.

Because it’s the ending, that is the weakest spot of “Mama”. You see, we could have had a decent horror story that was paced rather well, the acting was fine, the mood was perfect – it was terrifying. But somewhere along the way I started to suspect that no-one had a clear idea how to end it.

In the current climate, if you want a horror to be remembered as something more than just a run-of-the-mill shocker, you need to be somewhat creative. It’s not the 90’s anymore and you can’t just get on a torture porn or found-footage band wagon, because there’s so many of them. The haunted house and ghost stories have been exploited ad nauseam in all possible ways, so it is really difficult to come up with something new, at least from the point of view of a story.

I think that nowadays a proper mood is your safest bet. If you make your picture damn scary and/or gut-wrenching people will remember it. “Mama” had all the chances to succeed in that department, but this potential has been squandered. The minute the film started to focus around investigating who Mama was and what she wanted, it started to descend down a one-way street towards a nasty cliché. I really preferred not to know everything. I loved the mystery. But when it was solved and everything was uncovered – it was all gone. The king was naked.

If I ever see “Mama” again, it will not be the same. I can’t be afraid of it any more. What started out as a promising take on the ghost story (that was not revolutionary in a conventional sense) with everything you’d possibly want from a movie like that, ended up just another pointless shocker killed by its own ending. I have to say that as of now, I’m still rather disappointed with “Mama”. It’s a perfect example of how to shoot oneself in the foot by trying to explain too much. Some things need not be said. Some things need to be left alone. I don’t even want to know what would have happened in the story had it been 20 minutes longer.

All in all, I think I could turn my blind eye at the sad excuse for a climax “Mama” had to offer. It delivered very well when it comes to the atmosphere. The scares were genuine and the story – while it could have strayed further away from the beaten path – was good enough to be able to stand on its own two legs within the genre. Sadly, the lack of experience reared its ugly head eventually and murdered the film with anticlimactic plot development that stemmed from a terrible mistake of trying to explain to much. Knowing that I can only give the guy a pat on the back and say ‘good effort’. Next time round I won’t be merciful.