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Kubo and the Two Strings

Animated Artistry
If this film was told from another perspective, Kubo and the Two Strings might be considered a bit preachy. It still might be, regardless. But no matter how you look at it, it is something to be looked at more than once. It is simply an amazing work of animated achievement in cinema.

Set in what could be medieval Japan, a little boy named Kubo scratches out a meager existence on the village streets earning just enough for him and his mother to survive. For her part, mom (voiced by Charlize Theron) sits at the mouth of their mountaintop cave in a comatose state every day until dusk. This is also the time when Kubo must be home, not only to be there when she snaps out of it to regale him with stories of his long lost warrior father, but so he can be safe from the evil that bewitched his mother and left him with only one eye. Failing to do this one fateful night forces Kubo on a journey to recover mythical armor and weapons that will beat back the forces of darkness and restore love and harmony to his life and the lives of others. Aiding him on his quest are a miniature monkey carving come to life, an origami samurai, and a beetle/man warrior (Matthew McConaughey).

What is truly exceptional about Kubo and the Two Strings is not the story. The characters have American English accents and are not Asian. A couple characters aren't really fleshed out (those of Brenda Vaccaro and Ralph Fiennes for example). Although the film is geared toward a younger audience, there are deep themes of rebirth and reincarnation that are a major part of the movie and seem heavy handed, as was hinted at earlier. The story is not the star, the presentation of the story is what shines.

Anyone who is familiar with Laika studios work (Coraline, The Boxtrolls) will not be disappointed in how Kubo and the Two Strings looks. For the uninitiated, be prepared to see a film that hearkens back to the old style of painstaking, stop-motion animation with a splash of 21st century wizardry. These filmmakers have done what other strive to do with budgets two, four, even six times larger. They have made an animated world that pulls you in with its realism. It doesn't come off as cartoon like. Eyes glisten, teeth are almost translucent, hair blows in the wind, characters have shadows. Any shortcomings in the script are quickly forgiven when the evil sisters float into the scene or when Kubo (Art Parkinson) captivates the town folk with his storytelling. It's the attention to detail, the craftsmanship, and artistic appreciation that sets films like Kubo and the Two Strings apart from other animated feature films. The filmmakers have learned a lot from the old masters and have served notice that they are at the top of their game. Just sit back and let them and their latest undertaking work their magic on you.


A Potential Classic
If you have watched the original Rocky and think it is a near classic, then Creed is close. Maybe not a classic, because only time will tell. But it is close in terms of look and feel. There are scenes, tempo, performances, music, and of course the setting (Philadelphia) which harken back to the award winning 1976 film. This is not a comparison piece, but Creed is what the earlier release this year of Southpaw could have been; a gritty, modern day boxing film.

Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), plays the titular character (using the name Donnie Johnson) who yearns to exorcise his demons/ follow his dreams in the boxing ring. Without giving anything away, he's the son of the late, great Apollo Creed and he sets out to find any trainer willing to take him on. He can fight, but he's raw and needs refinement if he's going to be taken seriously.

His search lands him in his father's old Philly stomping ground, where he pester's one Rocky Balboa (Stallone) into training him. He pulls every angle to get Rocky to help him since his pop and Rocky were combatants and close friends before he died. Once Rocky begrudgingly gives in, things begin to coalesce. Stallone is excellent as the "Mickey"-esque Balboa. Although he didn't write the screenplay for Creed, he is one of the producers and his presence is felt. The dynamic between his character and Creed is perfect. The right combination of old school and new school. One scene is indicative when Creed takes a picture on his phone of Rocky's workout routine then tells him it's "in the cloud" to Rocky's bewilderment.

In Creed, director and writer Ryan Cogler is reunited with Jordan. As Creed, Jordan's performance is on part with Stallone's. He imbues his character with just the right amount of bravado, not cockiness, just confidence, hunger, and drive. He also trained and bulked up for the role. But he's not all fierce competitor, he has funny, sensitive sides as well. Cogler's team decided Creed should have a love interest. The relationship he forges with a local neo- soul artist played by Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) could have been syrupy, but thankfully it doesn't overshadow the main theme or feel forced. Frankly, some of the scenes with Thompson and Jordan are very good and so is their chemistry.

Creed is an excellent example of mixing newcomers with established names on both sides of the camera and having the end result come out perfect. The crew and cast turn in great work. Cogler had the fortune and skill to work with people who know what it takes to put together a film that would appeal to critics and audiences alike. There were a couple scenes that are "wow" moments, not just fight scenes, which are are amazing, but little scenes that are set up, shot (by Maryse Alberti) and acted that will have a lasting effect on the viewer. Maybe classic isn't a stretch.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

A Solid Film
The catchphrase of The Hunger Games series is easy to remember: "May the odds be ever in your favor." For the final installment of this trilogy, the odds were excellent. While last year's Mockingjay: Part 1 failed to entertain, Part 2 delivers far more excitement as the action- packed, emotionally-charged conclusion to The Hunger Games.

Mockingjay: Part 2 starts slowly, like an extension of the previous film, as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes once more in a District 13 hospital. For the first 20 minutes, Katniss pulls her usual tricks, defying orders from her elders while nursing her wounds. This is par for the course, and Gamemaker-turned-rebel Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and District 13's President Coin (Julianne Moore) continue their propagandist scheming while barely keeping tabs on Katniss. Eventually, the film turns from the weary greys of the Panem districts as Katniss sneaks away from her inspiring role as the Mockingjay – luckily for the viewer, since the beginning camera work is as shaky as a foundfootage reel. Accompanied by an elite squad of soldiers and her love interests, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss infiltrates the Capitol on a death-defying mission to assassinate villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

Tensions run high through the movie, as familiar and beloved characters – mostly the bedraggled victors of the former Games – encounter danger after danger on their quest. Given that director Francis Lawrence was also at the helm for Mockingjay: Part 1 (which suffered from a serious case of the doldrums), it's odd that Part 2 feels more like a horror movie than an adventure flick. Whenever tragedy occurs, the grief that follows is rushed, as though the action sequences were more important than any fallen character. Still, as Katniss' bravery falters in the face of the on screen perils, Jennifer Lawrence proves herself a more- than-capable actor, voice broken into a hoarse whisper as she carries an invisible weight on her shoulders. Most of the surrounding cast is just as good – particularly Julianne Moore, who, stripped of her signature red hair, makes an excellent ice queen – and Hoffman's absence from some key scenes is well-disguised with some clever ploys from the screenwriters.

The film's secondary plot line, Katniss' love triangle, is one of a few signs that Mockingjay 2 – perhaps the entire series – isn't quite a masterpiece. While Hemsworth and Hutcherson do their best with their one-dimensional roles (stoic soldier Gale and Peeta, the tortured male ingenue), it's difficult to feel much sympathy for their characters, who seem to have a fourth- wall knowledge about their love lives. Meanwhile, Katniss' own romantic feelings are completely inscrutable, leaving the viewer to hope she'll stay single.

Although producers Nina Jacobson (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and Jon Kilik (Babel), have plenty of experience under their belts, they missed their chance to strengthen the film. The pacing is strange, with too much time spent on the Mockingjay propaganda arc. No one seemed to notice that the screenwriters barely even wrote a script. Much of the dialogue present in the source material, Suzanne Collins' book series, is cut in favor of shots of the actors' anguished faces. Overall, the whole trilogy might have benefited from narration – it would give more credence to the befuddling choices Katniss makes. Given Jacobson's penchant for strong female leadership, it's unsurprising that the women in Mockingjay are never truly questioned.

Despite its faults, Mockingjay: Part 2 is a solid film. At its core, The Hunger Games is a grim dystopian tale, and its final installment perfectly fits the bill. After spending two hours immersed in this greyscale universe, it is a welcome relief to step out of the theatre into a world with full color.

Straight Outta Compton

An Excellent Film!
Making a biopic is no easy accomplishment. There are always going to be yells that certain people, places, things were left out or shown in a bad light,etc. There's no guarantee that the filmmakers will have the blessing from the actual living persons or estate. There is the chance that the person or persons cast won't be able to convince the audience. And of course, can the filmmakers pull the whole thing off? In the particular case of Straight Outta Compton, there's no need to worry from the audience or the cast and crew. It's phenomenal. With only one known entity, albeit an amazing one, director F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen, Be Cool), screenwriters Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff and the entire filmmaking team used almost all unknown actors and zeroed in on a group, time, and place that unfortunately and uncannily is still relevant to this day.

Straight Outta Compton is the story of the groundbreaking rap group known as N.W.A. The group started in the mid-80′s with the hardscrabble life of growing up with gang violence, drugs, and police brutality as their backdrop. Using their street knowledge, talent for writing, sound mixing, rapping, and some capital courtesy of one of the members, N.W.A. set themselves apart from other groups and styles of the time. Dr. Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella, Ice Cube and Easy E combined infectious beats with incendiary rhymes to give a voice to a generation of urban youth who were waiting for someone to tell it like it is.

From the opening scene, the die is cast that Straight Outta Compton is going to be an intense, detailed slice of life. A police tank equipped with a battering ram knocks down the whole front of a house and knocks a woman all the way across the room. It's not overseas, it's in the 'hood. It's a powerful scene and amazingly done. Counter that with Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) laying on his back, headphones on, amongst albums strewn across the floor. He's listening to a Roy Ayers classic, deep in thought, then his mom turns off the record player killing his vibe. The movie is rife with these kinds of details, including Jheri curls and activator.

This being a film about a musical group, it would be remiss if there was no mention about the score and soundtrack. Straight Outta Compton not only has N.W.A.'s music, it also has R&B, soul, jazz, and some disco. The music is there and it sounds really good from a quality perspective. Kudos to the music and sound people.

The film is rich with characters. Each member of the group gets his due and others that were on the periphery get a nod. Props to Cindy Tolan for the casting choices because to mention everyone in this review would be difficult and to single out certain performances is almost impossible. This is especially true for viewers who might not be familiar with who is who. For instance, N.W.A.'s encounter and dealings with Marion "Suge Knight. R. Marcos Taylor not only looks like the imposing, maniacal, mountain of a man, his performance is menacingly spot on. However, because Straight Outta Compton centers for the most part on Easy E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and their manager Jerry Heller, the spotlight is on them. Making these characters come to life and leaving an indelible impression on you is the work of Jason Mitchell, the aforementioned Corey Hawkins, O'Shea Jackson Jr., and Paul Giamatti, respectively. It was a stroke of near genius and enormous confidence to shoot a 2 1/2 hr film about rappers with unknowns and then ask Giamatti (John Adams!) to sign on. The scenes involving these actors are funny, poignant, and intense. None more so than when the group is outside the recording studio and get harassed by the police, or finally getting Easy E to step into the sound booth. All four of these actors deserve recognition but especially Mitchell and Giamatti.

For those who might not like rap or to be more specific "gangsta" rap, the film is more than that. From start to finish Straight Outta Compton is an amazing film. Timing is everything and with what is going on right now in society, makes it that much more profound.


Could Have Been A Contender
Southpaw comes at you from many directions, but does it connect? That's what Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) and crew are pinning their housenotes on in their take on the world of boxing.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an amped up throwback of both the boxing and human variety and puts in an excellent portrayal. Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is the light-heavyweight world champ with a great wife and cute little daughter to support him. The only problem is he might be getting a bit too mature for taking on shots to the dome and should stop. Unfortunately he doesn't want to.

Fans of the "sweet science" on film will certainly like the look and feel of Southpaw. Colors are crisp, camera angles, edits, choreography and cinematography especially during the fight segments are well above average. Besides these aspects, film fans in general might like other components of the film from set and costume design (except maybe Curtis Jackson's character), to the music and acting. If you don't like realistic boxing sequences, then close your eyes for the fight scenes. No to worry, there are some performances worth watching outside of the ring.

As Billy's business savvy wife, Rachel McAdams should have been included more. Maureen is sassy, sexy, smart and cares deeply about her family. McAdams looks and acts the part without a hitch, but the plot goes in a different direction. About two thirds into Southpaw, Billy goes under the tutelage of Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) to take on bouts for money and for a job. Whitaker is great as (of course) a gruff, world weary gym owner, mentor, trainer. The interplay between Tick and Billy are one of the saving graces of Southpaw. Thanks to Kurt Sutter, these characters get off some of the films best dialog and one liners. Billy showing up at one of Tick's haunts and the responses during his outbursts are prime examples.

As briefly mentioned Gyllenhall is amazing in Southpaw. If you hear comparisons to De Niro or Stallone, that may be about right. Billy is the guy you want to root for. You feel for him in more ways than one, one of which is probably because he's a little off. The guy mumbles and your not sure if he's punch drunk and then you realize that he's not sure either. Besides his almost incomprehensible speech, he's wound tight. At one moment an almost homicidal maniac, then training kids how to move their feet in the ring. From his posture, speech, mannerisms, to throwing a punch, Gyllenhaal did his homework.

Still there are perhaps glaring deficiencies in Southpaw. There is something that doesn't seem authentic. Most disconcerting would be the lack of medical professionals surrounding Billy Hope's world and boxing in general. Every time there's a shot of him in the locker room after a fight, there are no doctors to be found. The guy takes on a beating, blood coming out of his mouth, eye swollen shut, but nobody taking a look at him? Not to mention doing a scan every once in a while to make sure his brain hasn't turned to oatmeal. Would it have put the film over budget to cast a doctor or two? There are no weigh ins, only one press conference where there should be one before every fight, if not to make it more entertaining between combatants. The verbal fight before the actual fight. Then there's the issue of his little girl (nice job by Oona Laurence) at home by herself. They show her with someone who may be a nanny one time, other than that she is alone in the family's huge mansion for stretches of the film. She even rides in a limousine by herself after a funeral while her dad sits on a hill. No follow up on the murder of a key player? Nitpicking? Maybe, but these and other omissions detract from vaulting Southpaw to the next level.

If you are able not to scrutinize Southpaw too much, it is a very good film. Gyllenhaal's whirling dervish performance will cover up a lot of the missteps. Unfortunately, the filmmakers failed to focus on other aspects that could have put it along some of the greats of the genre.

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Funniest Film Of The Year
Comedian Amy Schumer's debut as a filmmaker is a very good one. If you've seen her TV show Inside Amy Schumer, you know Schumer's already here. As the screenwriter of Trainwreck she infuses her characters with not only humor, but with pathos and depth. Combined with some gems performances by the ensemble of lesser known names and media and sports icons, the film comes close to knocking it out of the park.

Amy (Schumer) is on track to move up the ranks of the magazine where she works. The mag is maybe a mix of Cosmopolitan, Maxim, and Paper, with story topics like "The Best Hockey Porn to Masturbate To". Amy is assigned by her boss Dianna (the ever amazing Tilda Swinton) to interview the leading sports orthopedic surgeon in the country (Bill Hader). Since she hates sports, Dianna figures Amy would be the perfect fit to write something edgy, smirky,etc. Over the span of a couple weeks, Amy gets to know Dr. Aaron (Hader), who comes off as a sweet, almost naive guy. This is in direct contrast to the many guys she's met and slept with, not to mention herself.

It's the inner workings of the character Amy that make Trainwreck stand out. Schumer created a female persona that is multi-layered. She's funny, smart, outgoing, but also a bit dark, bitter and fatalistic. This is shown throughout the film in the way she treats the men she dates and sleeps with. Although Hader is the leading man in the film, the funniest and maybe best interactions are when Amy is opposite WWE superstar Jon Cena. It's clear who is the dominant one in their relationship, especially when he tells her the plans he has for the two of them. His are by far the most cringeworthy/gut busting scenes in Trainwreck. Schumer's chemistry with her on screen sister Kim (Brie Larson) and dad (Colin Quinn) are equally excellent. Kim is the one who settled down and still blames pops for their parents divorce, while Amy sides more with dad. This is all due from the opening scene where dad explains to them as little girls what the situation was. It's also the setup to how Amy turned out the way she is. As their loving yet philandering dad, Quinn is great and gets off some excellent one liners, but his opening speech is what sets the tone for the entire film.

Trainwreck is not just Schumer, although it is her film and she shines throughout. She is helped along the way by many folks who turned in performances that will have you pleasantly shaking your head. Along with the hilarious performance of Cena, newcomer Lebron James shows his acting chops as Dr. Aaron's buddy. As his good friend and confidant, James even organizes an intervention to help Aaron get his head together. Vanessa Bayer, Dave Attell , and Ezra Miller also are given great material to work with and they run with it. Miller's scene with Schumer is just another example of what you won't expect coming in Trainwreck.

Trainwreck is one of the best films of the year and yet should have been about 20 minutes shorter, as the ending dragged a bit. With that said, it could have been called Blindsided. Since it's a romantic comedy, you might know how it's going to end, but you will not see it coming. The title doesn't matter, but Schumer most definitely does.

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Replace the "h" with an "r"
Some films land on the fringe of being great but Chappie falls just short of being bad. It's pretty bad. Driven with a lack of storyline, empathetic characters, but rampant with bad acting. There isn't much that's redeemable of the film. Likewise, there isn't much that calls a trip to the theater.

The first half of Chappie follows Deon (Dev Patel) as he creates the sentient robot from which the film derives its name. He has engineered South Africa's answer to law enforcement. A league of crime fighting robots, the Scout, sport free-thinking artificial intelligence that rival it's human police counterparts. However, his real goal is to create a robot with consciousness that can speak different languages and appreciate art. He comes close to figuring out the equation when his path is complicated when some thugs capture him and force him to turn off all his police bots with a "remote". After some improbable happenstances Deon creates Chappie, which leads gangsters Yo- Landi, Ninja and Amerika to raise it like a child so that they can use him to perform heists. Somewhere in the story Deon also has a work nemesis (Hugh Jackman, The Fountain) that tries to promote his own robotic creation by undermining the productivity of the Scout. Everything is set to the backdrop of a tumultuous Johannesburg.

A big problem with the film is a lack of storyline. The script allots ample screen time for audiences to understand and sympathize with Chappie but that task is never fully realized. So much time is spent on character development for one robot that everyone else is stripped down to one dimension. Society's dependency on technology is an interesting premise for a film but filmmaker Neil Blomkamp's flashy work never takes off.

What Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell's (District 9) script lacks in brains it compensates with visual effects and explosions that are sadly squandered. Sharlto Copley's motion capture work and the visual effects team create a robot that is as clunky as the script. Chappie's movements and actions are played off for laughs but most of the time they miss the mark. With the robot taking up so much screen time it's also a shame that it's not engaging nor provides an empathetic connection with the audience. The first two acts suffer from the cardinal sin of movie making: boredom. When the story finally picks up and culminates in some exciting action scenes, it is marred with tasteless acts of violence. There's one fight scene between Chappie and Jackson that is not just gratuitous but will make the audience cringe with distaste.

As an additional weight on the film, Chappie trudges along with an unconvincing protagonist, cartoonish characters and performances from rap rave group Die Antwoord that leave much to be desired. Members Ninja and Yolandi Visser essentially play exaggerated versions of themselves as gangsters. Their performances are uneven and in certain scenes, just plan unconvincing. Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) is fine in his role as the maker of artificial life but Jackson's villain character lacks more depth than the shallow side of a kiddie pool. These pitfalls are made even more glaring when the main character constantly teeters on annoying and fills the screen with antics that are plainly not entertaining.

Running at two hours long, Chappie could have been compressed to a 20-minute short story. By the time the somewhat interesting idea of transferred consciousness is introduced, there isn't any time for the film to dig itself out of its many plot holes. This one's a pass.

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Interesting mix of crime, romance, suspense and comedy
Throwing his hat into the ring of the con artist sub genre, Will Smith stars as Nicky Spurgeon in Focus. These types of film are never easy to do well because like a magic trick, the audience has to always be in the dark. Or to put it another way, the film (or magician) has to be one step ahead of the audience. If you know it's a magic trick or some type of confidence game going on, you might try to figure everything out instead of just going with it. In the case of Focus, the reveal is a pretty good one.

With that being said, if you are a fan of Will Smith then that's great. Some people think it's hard to think of him as a character and not as himself. So be it, then in this case you have Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) to scrutinize as well. She comes along early in the film as a would be, up and coming grifter that insists on learning the finer points from Nicky. She's a quick learner and soon becomes part of his crew and more. This is where things get fuzzy because you're unsure if everyone is on the up and up.

The filmmakers that brought you Crazy, Stupid, Love have assembled a fine cast (Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, BD Wong) that take on interesting and integral parts of this jigsaw. It would be a shame not to mention Adrian Martinez as Nicky's main man Farhad. If Focus is considered a Ro-Com, then Martinez is definitely the comic relief. Robbie's performance should not go unnoticed by any stretch either. Although she's still a newcomer and not hard to look at, she more than holds her own with a blockbuster star of Smiths caliber. One can only hope that she doesn't get pigeonholed as the bombshell girlfriend/wife, etc.

Focus is an interesting mix of romance, crime, suspense, comedy, formula one racing, football, New Orleans and Buena Aires. That all sounds like a good time. And it is.

The Equalizer

Washington nails it
Antoine Fuqua's big screen adaptation of the 80′s TV series The Equalizer opens with an impressive tracking shot through an open window, and into the orderly and near empty apartment, belonging to Robert McCall (Denzel Washington). McCall lives a Spartan existence; for the first twenty minutes of the picture, he hardly says a word. Fuqua (Training Day) gives a lengthy shot as you watch McCall fold something delicately into a napkin. When you see him unfold the napkin at his regular diner, and place the teabag into a cup of hot water, you understand immediately that this man is a creature of habit, firmly set in his ways. Every night he's there, reading a book. He's such a regular, that he strikes up a familiar acquaintance in a young teenage prostitute, Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz)), which eventually grows into something of a friendship. There is something undeniably hidden within him, however. When he realizes the danger Teri is in thanks to her nefarious Russian pimps, he forgoes his cautious life, and willingly brings on the pain.

Director Fuqua accordingly really brings on the style for these sequences. His relative quiet touches give way to mayhem. Before every murder McCall commits, the camera slows down, taking on a golden hue, and you literally see McCall breaking down every element of his victims: tattoos, facial expressions. And then he lets loose: even timing himself to see if he can voice dispatch Mafiosi in 30 seconds or less.

And The Equalizer is undeniably fun. It's one of those thrillers that begins moody and atmospheric, and then decides it would be more fun to see how many people can be dispatched with nail guns or corkscrew openers; and it is similarly unconcerned with logic in the idea that McCall decides to take down the entire East Coast hub of the Russian mafia, simply over one teenage prostitute. But with Fuqua this stylistically assured, and Washington equally game, does it really matter?

As Teri, Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick Ass, Carrie) forgoes the sarcastic strategy Jodie Foster used as a teenage hooker in Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Teri is arguably much more frightened of her violent handlers, and is less given to false bravado as result. And even though her character really amounts to little more than a glorified supporting part after she is sent away, she is a great deal of fun to watch, and she holds her own more than capably against Denzel Washington (The Book Of Eli). The habit of extended cameos in The Equalizer is even more extreme in the case of Melissa Leo as Robert's former CIA contact, who pops up to give a vital piece of information on the evil mobster, and to tentatively tiptoe around the subject of his wife, while offering a small measure of comfort. The bit part parade reaches "blink-and-you-miss him" cameo status, by casting a reputable star like Bill Pullman as Leo's husband, and giving him no more than four lines (though of course it's possible that this may be a larger part that met with cuts in the editing room).

If anything, a weakness of The Equalizer is that McCall's troubled personal life is left as somewhat ambiguous. Who can blame it really? The opening aims for a quiet kind of profundity, and it succeeds, but isn't really interested in following through. For all its thin characterization, there is something just as nice in watching Denzel Washington coldly and calculatingly firing a nail gun in righteous vengeance.

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The Boxtrolls

Maybe a classic
For the potential viewers of this film, don't worry if you didn't read the book Here Be Monsters! first. The Boxtrolls movie stands on its own as an excellent story wrapped in visuals that pay homage to the craft of stop motion animation. It's funny, clever, gross, a bit cheeky, and a bit dark. Everything kids and many adults who accompany them or with others in the age group will enjoy. Whether it will be a classic or not, is hard to say.

The Boxtrolls are, well, basically trolls that have boxes they use as clothes and safety. They are a modest and timid sort. They are also industrious and like all kinds of gadgets. Since the story takes place around the time of the Industrial Revolution, there is no shortage of gears, crankshafts, bolts, wheels, or any manner of metal part they try to put to some other use. They also are good at babysitting. None more so than Fish and Shoe, the two de facto fathers of one young boy that goes by the name of Eggs (it should be noted that their names are the names of the boxes they wear).

Without getting into too much detail about the origins of their young charge, these three along with the other Boxtrolls have been labeled as kidnapping, baby eating, monsters by the fine townfolk of Cheesebridge. Led by the elite White Hats and their leader Lord Portly-Rind (Jared Harris) and the upwardly mobile Red Hat Archie Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), they have vowed to eradicate their hamlet of the Boxtroll vermin. The only thing more important than accomplishing this task is their love of all types of cheese. Some of the funniest and strangest scenes of the film is the discussions and consumption of cheese by the ruling class and the aforementioned Mr. Snatcher.

Besides a wonderful voice acting performance by Sir Kingsley, The Boxtrolls is full of great turns. Two of Mr. Snatch's henchmen Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout, (Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost, respectively) offer up metaphysical and philosophical commentary musings about life and their career choices. On the other hand, the overzealous Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan) is a man of few words, rather letting his actions do the talking. Elle Fanning (Maleficent) and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Game Of Thrones) are a perfect match as Winnie, the daughter of Lord Portly-Rind and Eggs. She teaches him how to act in public, while he indulges her thirst for all things creepy and crawly.

The look of The Boxtrolls can be summed up in one word: amazing. Not in a super saturated color, larger than life way, but in a painstakingly meticulous, attention to detail way. Although the film is in 3d and might lose something when viewed on a smaller screen, the skill, reverence and affection the animation/modeling team poured into the sets and characters, along with top shelf screen writing and acting make this film one of the best animated features to come out in quite a while.

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A marvel to experience
When it comes to iconic movie monsters, few others can come close to the King of the Monsters himself, Godzilla. Director Gareth Edward's 2014 Godzilla film is the second time that an American studio has taken the reigns in an attempt to bring Japan's most famous kaiju to the big screen. Its predecessor in 1998 met mixed to negative reviews, but this update pays homage to the original 1954 Japanese film while at the same time modernizing the tale for a new audience.

The film follows Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a lieutenant in the United States Navy who specializes in disposing of explosive ordinances. Ford's parents, Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Sandra (Juliette Binoche) work in a Japanese nuclear plant when a terrible accident occurred in 1999. Fifteen years later, Joe is a conspiracy theorist on the search for truth when he is arrested for trespassing on the remains of his old house, now a quarantine zone. Joe believes that it was not a natural disaster that took his wife, but some kind of creature that the government is trying to cover up. Now, believing that history is repeating itself, he embarks on a search for his old data, dragging his son along with him.

While the plot of Godzilla is told from the perspective of Lt. Brody, everyone knows who the real star of the film is and the director took great care in portraying the monster in a positive light. The real threat to humanity in the film are two giant, insect-like monsters, called M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) who are attempting to meet and reproduce. The beast known as Godzilla is described by resident monster expert, Dr. Serazawa (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samuri) as a prehistoric animal who is "nature's power to restore balance." The director spends a great deal of time in the first act of the movie teasing the audience with the scaly hero, and it was a smart decision to build the tension and anticipation before revealing the beloved monster in a roaring crescendo of excitement.

The human story in Godzilla is necessary and while not the most gripping, it remains entertaining enough that it doesn't seem to hurt the action. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) is the film's protagonist and the audience watches the story unfold from his perspective. Viewers will be able to get behind the Navy Lieutenant desperately trying to get back to his family and protect them, and also playing his part to save the world. Taylor-Johnson's performance, however, was rather thin and could have benefited from more emoting as opposed to the serious, blank stare he wears for the majority of the film. Conversely, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) really steals the show as Taylor-Johnson's eccentric father digging for the truth. He shows so much emotion in his time in the film, that it's a shame that his screen time is cut rather short. Ken Watanabe is great in his role and conveys a sense of respect for the titular monster. Elizabeth Olsen as Ford's wife Elle, spends almost the entire film worrying about the safety of her husband and son, but not much else.

Edwards' decision to portray the monsters as animals fighting for their own survival helped keep an otherwise fantastical film somewhat grounded in reality. In addition to the breathtaking visuals, the score by Alexandre Desplat is beautiful, perfectly pulling emotion from the audience. Technically speaking, Godzilla as a film is a marvel to look at, hear, and experience.

-Oliver Pascual


Mbatha-Raw drives the film
In years hence, audiences will be able to point to this film, as the moment the world knew Gugu Mbatha-Raw was going to be big. Belle is Amma Asante's feature-length directorial debut, and her work here is astonishingly confident. Tackling a period piece may seem daunting to most, but in Asante's case, she has the benefit of a top-notch cast, and a truly fascinating story. Loosely based on the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, Dido was the daughter of an enslaved African woman and an English admiral.

As the film begins, although she is born illegitimate, Dido's father (Matthew Goode, Stoker) gives her over into the care of his great-uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who acts as the Lord Chief Justice of the British courts. As she grows into a young woman, Dido's life at the palatial estate of Kenwood is full of mixed blessings. While her uncle and aunt (Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves) treat her as if she were their own—they raise her alongside their other niece, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon, A Dangerous Method)—social conventions of eighteenth century society are immovable; no matter how much they love her, Dido feels the sting of being forced to eat with the servants, when company comes calling.

The greatness of the film comes in its intricate plotting, and in the parallels drawn between gender and race. Author Jane Austen dealt with the position of women in English society through the use of dry humor—though the rage at a young woman being forced into marriage in order to secure a safe future was always very much present. In Belle however, there is no satire to soften the blow. As Elizabeth comes out, venturing to London in search of a husband, she points out to Belle the inherent unfairness of a system that allows women to be treated as male property. Dido doesn't necessarily have the problem of a search for a husband, as the inheritance of her father's fortune ensures that she is financially secure; but for a radiant young woman in the prime of her life, her uncle's insistence on keeping her out of sight understandably rankles her.

Matters are complicated by the arrival of John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a local clergyman. Ambitious and wide-eyed, John wants to try to rise in station, training with Lord Mansfied to become a lawyer. His outspoken, radically abolitionist views on a notorious legal case Lord Mansfield is trying annoy the Lord considerably; but he rouses all the passionate feeling in Dido that she has been forced for so long to suppress.

As Lord Mansfield, Wilkinson (Batman Begins, Michael Clayton) plays the exasperated father figure with the correct touches of humor and warmth. As a judge, he projects the inner conflicts of a man with the weight of the entire economic system on his shoulders; you can see him try to deflect from the strong-arming of local politicians, who want to ensure that the presence of the "mulatto" in his house will not affect his ruling on the case. As Elizabeth, Gadon takes what could have been a very stereotypical role of the flighty, romantic English girl, and brings a deep sense of hurt to it. Having been left with her uncle after her new stepmother successfully wrote her out of her father's will, Elizabeth's cheery exterior hides an emotionally hurt young girl.

And finally, there is Mbatha-Raw. As Dido, the engine that drives the film, you may deeply feel her two-fold frustration as a woman, and as a person of color. You will be carried away by her passion—her belief that things should not remain the same. On a more general level, the camera absolutely adores her. She moves and projects with a vitality and ease that forces one to stop at several points. Her characterization and her performance are so accomplished, that her independent-minded heroine could stand toe-to-toe with the multiple incarnations of Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett. If Belle is any indication, and if there is any fairness in this world, there should be more great things to come from her.

-Nick Kostopoulos - See more at:

The Lego Movie

A Killer Sense Of Humor
Boasting a killer sense of humor and a surprising amount of heart, The Lego Movie is a film that is not just made for kids. It's made with the those small, colored building blocks in mind, easily bringing memories to life for the adult who played with Legos growing up.

It's the underdog tale of Emit Brickowski (Chris Pratt), a standard mini-figure construction worker. Emit, like everyone in his city, lives his life based on instructions drawn up by Lord Business's (Will Ferrell) all encompassing corporation in the sky. When it's discovered that Emit is a prophesied savior of the world, called "The Special," he must prepare to become a "Master Builder" to defeat Lord Business before he freezes the whole world. Along the way, Emit gets help from a tough as nails female mini figure, WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), a wise but blind wizard named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), and Batman (Will Arnett), along with scores of other familiar characters and faces.

The film has a super fast pace, with many layers of humor that will keep you laughing and engaged the whole time. Pratt (Her) breathes life into Emit as a manic "Everyman" character that you root for, as well as relate to. Arnett's Batman is an uber Alfa male, and every line he utters is quotable and hilarious. As the villain, Ferrell is fun, and with a surprising twist in the story, his performance becomes the heart and soul of the film.

Unfortunately, there's a lack of female influences in the characters of The Lego Movie. Banks (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) does a fine job bringing WyldStyle to life, and she represents everything a strong independent woman should be. Alison Brie (Community) plays a My Little Pony hybrid creature named Unikitty who is sugar and spice and everything nice, but she does not truly represent another female character, as ultimately she is more of an abstract idea of a character. There are a few brief moments with Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders), however she is overshadowed by the machismo and gruff of Batman. It would have been lovely to see Wonder Woman work side by side with the male heroes to save the world, but she is regulated to cameo status.

A combination of stop motion and CGI animation, the film is visually brilliant. The detail that has been taken to create this universe is astounding. You watch as entire worlds are destroyed in a flash with red, orange, and white Lego brick flames, only to see them built up again. The film is worth the 3D ticket as it enhances the experience and gives the visuals more depth.

The Lego Movie is a pure delight. It's everything a humorous movie should be- visual, funny, and touching. It's been made for all audiences to enjoy. Bring the kids,but don't be surprised if you end up loving it more.

Ride Along

Might Induce Car Sickness
It's said that January is known as a wasteland when it comes to film releases. Those "in the know" say that studios release films during this month that they have little or no hope for. That premise might be true or not, but when it comes to Ride Along, there might be some merit in that belief. Meant to be a comedic vehicle for Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, this police procedural is almost too hard to watch. It could've been a lot better.

Struggling every which way to get in the good graces of his girlfriend's brother, erstwhile police academy candidate Ben Barber (Hart) jumps at the chance to prove himself by accepting the challenge of riding shotgun for a day with vice detective James Payton (Ice Cube). Add Serbian gun runners, an underworld kingpin played by none other than Laurence Fishburne (Man Of Steel), and crooked cops as a subplot, and you have the makings of an interesting genre piece. In this case, more like just a piece.

Blame for this catastrophe lays at the feet of the screenwriters, all four of them. Why didn't they ask Kevin Hart (Real Husbands Of Hollywood), who right now is one of the funniest comedians working, to help with the script? Instead they come up with a hodgepodge of bits that aren't funny. One saving scene is when Barber pretends he is Omar (the Fishburne character). Tim Story (Fantastic Four, Think Like A Man) is a credible director, so who knows what he was thinking.

To be fair, Ride Along is not a complete waste of time. It's just unfortunate that with a cast the likes mentioned and John Leguizamo, the film failed to deliver. These actors deserved to be in a much better picture, not one that had potential. If you watch this movie, you"ll be taking a ride, but you might not like where you end up.

La grande bellezza

Deserves distinction
Under most circumstances, comparisons to Federico Fellini's 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita might seem presumptuous to some. However, the ghosts of Fellini, and particularly of his alter ego Marcello Mastroianni hover over Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) in a way that is thought provoking and combative. In Fellini's picture Mastroianni played Marcello Rubini as a journalist turned gossip hound, whose traipsing through the decadent night-life of Rome ultimately led to him becoming a desensitized shell of a man.

Fifty-three years on, director Paolo Sorrentino suggests that not all that much has changed. Instead of rollicking to the rhythms of 60s club music, the partyers in The Great Beauty, stay up all night; day in and day out, amidst the throb of propulsive rave music. And whereas the tragic hero of La Dolce Vita was a man in his late 30s slowly losing his grip on the modern world, Sorrentino has taken this theory just one step further; for our hero is Jep Gambardella, a 65 year-old novelist whose first and only novel was a success 40 years ago, and has spent the intervening years on the party circuit. Clearly, if Mastroianni's existential angst was seen as the plight of the relatively young man in the tormented early 1960s, Sorrentino is asking us to contemplate what would happen if such a man were to dive headlong into pleasure—and not wake up for another 30 years.

The comparisons to Fellini also seem apt, if only because The Great Beauty eschews any sort of traditional "plot" for a much more episodic, often elliptical framework. The most that can be said about a forward drive is that Jep has a terrifying awakening after an unsatisfying sexual encounter with a woman, whose self-absorption causes him to question the course of his life. The rest of the film then follows as other characters float in and out. Jep connects with the husband of his first love; falls in love with the daughter of a close friend (she is an exotic dancer); witnesses the disquieting torment of a young pre-teen artist, forced to paint in front of large crowds, even as she is denied a childhood; and meets a 104 year-old reputed saint. Not all of these episodes resolve cleanly, but all of them work toward Sorrentino's central thesis: that the increasing vapidity of Western culture is an encroaching sickness, even as you follow Jep on his search for that belief in a Great Beauty that he had as younger man.

As Jep, Toni Servillo has the very tricky task of making this aimless playboy seem emotionally vulnerable. Like Mastroianni, Servillo can radiate a cool detachment that masks much deeper emotions. An example of this is in the perfectly written scene where Jep systematically repudiates everything a member of his inner circle claims: he knows that she is really a neglectful mother with an army of servants at her beck and call; her eleven novels were only published because the were subsidized by the local Communist Party; and her supposed deep love affair with her husband is a crock, as everyone knows he is in love with another man. Servillo is both callous and detached, firmly in control; he recites these facts as though he is in a formal debate. What makes this scene an absolute wonder, is that Servillo allows you to see Jep's pain. He isn't trying to be a cad, he just wishes she could see the truth: he tells her that everyone in this group is slowly being engulfed by failure, and that all they ask, is for a few laughs and a few small pleasures; no one is better than anyone else. The incredible amount of pain, sarcasm and tenderness Servillo shows you in this five minute scene, is one of the strongest performances of the year. Even as the interest level in various episodes waxes and wanes, it is Servillo's exhausted, occasionally humored visage that anchors and beckons you onward.

The Great Beauty will entrance you by the quiet, understated cinematography (by Luca Bigazzi), which again strikes a callback to Fellini's work, and other 1960s auteurs. For two hours and twenty minutes, you follow a camera as it creeps behind or around figures; as it moves slowly, or sometimes if it simply stays still, demanding of us that we learn to slow down in this rapid age, and watch. Like a dream, when you wake, not everything that you've experienced will be clearly understood; but thankfully, unlike your own rich, confusing visions, you can return to this film as many times as we like. There is no doubt The Great Beauty deserves such a distinction. -Nick Kostopoulos - See more at:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

A Powerful Adaptation Of The Second Book
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a powerful adaptation of the second book in The Hunger Games Trilogy. Director Francis Lawrence has successfully taken the franchise and built from the first film's foundations. This was a smart choice as the characters, world and themes of the story are now more fleshed out and most importantly- easier to see (no shaky cam).

Picking up almost a year after the first film, Catching Fire finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, no relation to the director) still reeling from her time in the arena during the previous years' Hunger Games- a scare tactic to keep the people of "Panem" quiet and grateful to their oppressors as they watch 24 of their children go into a televised fight to the death. Katniss and Peeta (Hutcherson) are the first double winners of the games thanks to their "true love". Now both of them find themselves thrown back in to the arena as the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) declares that the reaping of the tributes will be selected from previous winners of the games.

Jennifer Lawrence gives an intense, heartbreaking and invigorating performance as the reluctant heroine Katniss. She really seems to grasp the pain and terror Katniss goes through throughout the film. Katniss is not a girl of many words but when you have an actress who can convey genuine emotion without speaking- it doesn't matter.

As Peeta, Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right, Epic) has grown from the baby faced baker's boy to a steadfast calm in an ongoing storm, keeping Katniss tethered to sanity. Liam Hemsworth still has minimal screen time as the lovesick and angry Gale, but he also represents the inner turmoil of an oppressed society that has had enough.

Elizabeth Banks is stunning to watch as the overdressed and chipper Capitol escort Effie Trinket. Her outfits scream Capitol City Coutour, and she smiles with mad ignorance at the pain and oppression happening in Panem. Yet her face, when Katniss and Peeta are again called to be in the arena, shows a woman torn between her friends and her lifestyle. Jenna Malone gives a memorable turn as the troubled tribute Joanna. She is a controlled manic bringing electricity to every scene she steals. Joanna is a character only an actress as devoted and creative as Malone could pull off so magnificently.

Sutherland's power obsessed President Snow is again given much more screen time than page time in the books. This is a smart move for the film. Snow represents the evil of The Capitol without the thrill and glamor of it. He is a man desperately holding on to a system that is bound to fall apart. Sutherland revels in the role and brings his own special brand of creepiness to it. In one scene Katniss and Snow converse across a desk that seems to be the only thing between them killing one another with their bare hands. The tension is high and that is the beauty of two highly skilled actors playing off one another.

The film leans a little too heavily on the romance between Gale and Katniss. In the books Katniss indeed cares for Peeta and Gale, but she doesn't really have time or heart for romantic love. She is seen showing affection to Gale and this betrays her character. It does the book and it's message a disservice by hyping up a love triangle that certainly exists but is secondary to the story.

Gone is the shaky cam from the first film, though it maintains its moody dark blue and grey color scheme. Shot in Hawaii, the Arena is almost exactly as pictured in the book and all the horrors they face keep you on the edge of your seat until the heart pounding finale. Catching Fire is in no means a feel good film. There is very little comic relief as the stakes get higher and higher and the people of Panem get angrier and angrier. All while the citizens of the glittering Capitol City watch the blood shed and horrific chaos from their comfy seats in their temperature controlled theaters, wearing their colorful clothes and eating their endless supply of junk food… seems a little familiar doesn't it? - Christina Kishpaugh

The Conjuring

Believer or skeptic, the film is worth a viewing
Nowadays, reality television seems to thrive with audiences that want a peek into the lives of others. The feature length film, The Conjuring, isn't exactly a reality show, but does claim to be loosely based off the real life experiences of Ed and Lorraine Warren (paranormal investigators) and the Perron family. Like many horror flicks preceding, the implication that the events are somewhat real, does add a level of anxiety to the viewing experience. One of the film's trailers even features a family, in a documentary style interview, who asserts they are the family the film is based upon. It just may be left up to the viewer to decide how real, but the suggestion of true events will lend itself to a bit of buzz over the flick.

It's during the 70s that Roger (Ron Livingston, Office Space) and Carolyn Perron (Lily Taylor, The Haunting) moved their five daughters into a tattered New England home, which has a dark history the family is unaware of. The immense dead tree in the yard, the shadowy lake, and large ominous house act as foretellers, but that apparently isn't enough to steer this family away from home ownership. As expected, the mysterious occurrences happen from the beginning, though the pacing of paranormal activity is slow as the momentum of the film builds. April (Kyla Deaver), is the Perron's youngest daughter, and is the first to come in contact with the other side when she finds an antique music box. It's through the music box that she begins to see a young boy close to her own age.

After some time and several incidents, Carolyn cannot deny that something powerful and evil is terrorizing her home; she seeks the help of Ed (Patrick Wilson, Watchmen) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground). The Warren's are known for their expertise and experience with the supernatural. Lorraine, a clairvoyant, immediately senses the forces inside the home during her first visit. They later uncover the history of the property and determine the only possible way the Perron family would ever be completely safe is a sanctioned exorcism of the home performed by the Catholic Church. In the meantime, things escalate and as the evil forces react to the constant and threatening presence of Ed, Lorraine, and their team of investigators. It's soon evident that the Perrons are not the only ones in danger.

Director James Wan (Insidious), successfully reinvents the classic horror flick. The film is light on gore, but heavy with suspense and edge of your seat moments. It seems the audience cringes most at what's not there than what is revealed. He masterfully builds tension at just the right moments until the scene erupts with a crescendo. In one scene Christine (Joey King), one of the daughters, is awaken by one of the demonic forces. Her slow search of the dark room turned up nothing visually for the audience, but nonetheless turned out be one of the most terrifying scenes, leaving the audience in a prolonged state of anticipation—all the while waiting for the big scare.

An experienced cast further propels The Conjuring. The five young ladies cast as the daughters all perform excellently and plays "scared to death" quite convincingly. The four veteran leads: Farmiga, Wilson, Livingston, and Taylor are brilliant, though Farmiga and Taylor pilot this feature as the tortured female leads. Whether you're a believer or skeptic, the film is worth a viewing.

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Girl Most Likely

Full of potential, but falls flat
Girl Most Likely is full of potential and just like it's heroin, a lot is expected from it. It's a great set up with an amazing cast but where it has all those strengths- it's weaknesses are equal if not stronger.

The film follows Imogene (Kristen Wiig), an unlikable whining 30 year old woman- child. Once a successful up and coming playwright, Imogene is in a major slump. After a fake suicide attempt she is released by the hospital into the hands of her gambling addicted mother (Annette Bening). Imogene is taken against her will from the comforts of New York to where she grew up, a New Jersey boardwalk town, that she hates with a passion. There she finds her mother is dating a younger man who may or may not be a CIA agent (Matt Dillon) and meets an even younger man (Darren Criss) who is renting out her childhood bedroom. When Imogene and her younger brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) find out their long deceased father is actually alive and well, Imogene makes it her goal to find and reunite with him.

From the get go Girl Most Likely tries to instill in your brain what it is like to be Imogene by some shabby point of view camera work. In fact most of the visual appeal of the film really just rests on the expressive and handsome shoulders of young up and comer Darren Criss who, as the sexy happy go- lucky Lee, represents what Imogene should aspire to be but fails to become.

Wiig, who is known for her eccentric and outrageous characters (Saturday Night Live, Bridesmaids) plays the straight man to Imogene's kooky family. She does not do well as the straight man in this film. Imogene is grumpy, selfish and irrational. She uses her own self sabotaged failure as an excuse to be awful to her family and friends.

Dillon and Bening (The Kids Are All Right) do their best caricatures of their characters, but never really get past the shtick. However, Fitzgerald does a fine job as Imogene's sweet "special" adult brother Ralph, he is so innocently wide eyed and optimistic that you could hate Imogene for not coming to visit in years.

To be fair, there are many funny moments in Girl Most Likely. Awkward laugh out loud gold moments. The film keeps going back and forth between outrageous comedy to slow burning indie, making it an uneven ride. It's about Imogene growing up and learning to love the family she has and not the one she thinks they should be- and she does learn to love them but it's not enough. She has larger issues and the ending doesn't feel resolved for her or an audience who spends 103 minutes trying to root for her.


Interesting angle, still scary.
When sisters Lily and Victoria are left in the woods after a series of horrific events leaves them orphaned, how would they survive for the next five years until they are eventually rescued? Have no fear, Mama is here. The debut feature from Spanish director Andres Muschietti has some plot hole, but still delivers the goods in a scary, almost poignant way.

In Mama, there are similarities to the American version of The Ring in the way some of the scenes are shot in that grainy, static, antiquated, black and white style. Horror/ghost film fans might think parts of the film are clichéd and they would be correct. However, the two sisters in the film (played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) make for interesting viewing. As Victoria and Lilly, the two are feral creatures having lived in the wild the bulk of their lives. Even after being taken in by their uncle (Game Of Thrones' Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau, Lilly still prefers to run around on all fours, eat with her hands while on the floor, and sleep under her bed. Her speech is relegated to growls and grunts with a few words mixed in. Her big sister, Victoria has a faster time assimilating to the civilized world. She even begins to cozy up to her uncle's punk rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).

What makes Mama work is the relationship between the female characters. Chastain ( Take Shelter, Zero Dark Thirty) has the lead role. She's the girlfriend, but becomes the unwilling stepmom to the two girls. The girls accept her to different degrees, but still cling to each other first and foremost. They also cling to "Mama" and vice versa. Thus what you have is a battle of wills between the supernatural and the living world with the emotional and physical well being of two little girls hanging in the balance. Maybe the presence of Barbara Muschietti (sister of the director) as one of the producers and writers of the film had some influence on having women as the driving force.

In addition, Mama might feel and look like the style of Guillermo del Toro film. That could be because he executive produced the film. If you are familiar with his work, you can see his hand in guiding this maiden voyage. Even so, Mama stands on it's own merits. It's far from perfect. The acting, especially from the kids, some trippy and macabre imagery , and a bit of a twist might make you want to sleep with the lights on.

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