I've got two very different films for you this week. The Impossible is a gritty-but-uplifting true story of a vacationing family split up by a tsunami in Thailand and their efforts to find each other amidst the chaos. Mama is a horror film that finds two girls raised in the forest by a maternal spectre. Please “like” me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter to get regular updates on my new reviews, and look for my book 250 Great Movies for Latter-day Families, in stores Fall 2013. If you like the site, please share it with your friends!
THE IMPOSSIBLE REVIEW (GRADE: A)
I rarely cry in movies. I don't say this as a declaration of macho strength, as I see nothing wrong with crying in and of itself. No, I tell you this so that you know that movies which make me cry are few and far between, and I cried in The Impossible. A lot. This wasn't just because it's sad and tragic (it is), but also because it's so inspiring and soul-affirming. The audience sees its fair share of dead bodies, orphaned children, and ghastly injuries, but it also witnesses unfailing marital devotion, familial affection, and tremendous charity between strangers. It gives Les Miserables a run for its money as the most emotionally draining (and emotionally rewarding) film of the past year. It's also based on a phenomenal true story.
Ewan McGregor (Big Fish, Moulin Rouge) and Naomi Watts (The Ring, King Kong) star as a happily married couple on vacation in Thailand with their children when a massive tsunami tears their family apart. Separated by distance, hindered by injury, and weakened by physical and emotional fatigue, the family fights to reunite, encountering (and giving) kindness along the way. That's the plot. It's fairly simple, yet the execution is brilliant. McGregor and Watts give Oscar-worthy performances (though only she was nominated). The unknown child actors playing their children are incredibly natural, especially Tom Holland, as the oldest sibling Lucas, who makes a marvelous transformation from slightly bully-ish big brother to altruistic and mature hero before our eyes.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona and his crew recreate the devastation of a tsunami in a terrifyingly realistic sequence that never feels anything less than genuine (the aftermath, likewise, is captured with an impressive verisimilitude). The musical score is perfect. The cinematography is stunning yet rarely draws attention to itself. All of the supporting actors do fine work. This being an adaptation of a true story, some liberties were taken of course; a narrative device towards the end rings false. It's a Hollywood-style attempt to create unnecessary tension that threatens to derail the realism that came before. Fortunately, this audience-baiting moment lasts only a couple of minutes, and the film finds its footing to finish strong. A life-affirming and effective tearjerker that inspires the best in us without pulling punches on the harsh realities of life, The Impossible is gritty and emotional. It stands as one of the best films of the past year.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: The Impossible is rated PG-13. It shows a graphic hamstring injury and a rather horrifying scene of blood-vomiting, as well as shots of drowned bodies. A tsunami scene is very intense. A woman's bare breast is rather matter-of-factly shown twice for about a second, though in both instances it's neither sexual nor arousing (and is likely true to the actual story). We also see a naked man's backside from a distance. There are a few scattered mild-to-moderate profanities, but foul language isn't a major concern for this film.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: We are bound by honor to help those in need, providing comfort, aide, and compassion (Mosiah 18:8-9; James 4:17). The greatest joys and deepest love we experience in life may be with our families (The Family- A Proclamation to the World).
MAMA REVIEW (GRADE: C)
Utilizing every scary movie cliche at its disposal and hanging its entire premise on a rather silly computer-generated creation (less is more, people!), Mama starts strong but falls apart as it goes, made watchable by the fact that it's actually very well-acted. Jessica Chastain (recently nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Zero Dark Thirty) stars as a punk rocker who adopts, along with her boyfriend, two girls (the boyfriend's nieces) who were raised in the woods by a ghostly spectre they call “Mama.”
Chastain does fine work here, even as she goes through the requisite scary movie paces, and her transformation from apathetic guardian to a woman who comes to feel a maternal love for (and desire to protect) these children is actually quite moving. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau impresses in dual roles as the boyfriend and, in a brief prologue, as that character's twin brother, the girls' father. As the older sister, Megan Charpentier delivers nuance aplenty, displaying loyalty to “Mama” and fear of the apparition's jealousy as a bond forms between the girls and their new “mother.” Isabelle Nelisse is all kinds of creepy as the younger sister, who's almost-cute but clearly disturbed, more deeply influenced by ghoulish matriarch than her sibling.
Early on the film skillfully establishes a creepy tone and terrifies most when it relies on the power of suggestion. Once “Mama” is revealed, however, her fake-looking appearance elicits eye rolls, not screams, while her mythology borrows too-heavily from last year's far-superior Woman in Black. The plot collapses towards the end (though again, the actors valiantly give it their all). Alas, Mama is neither polished enough to truly frighten nor terrible enough to be unintentionally entertaining. It's merely close enough to being good that it disappoints with its blown potential.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: There's one f-word and a few other profanities. A woman straddles a man on a bed, kisses him, and begins to pull up his shirt when they're interrupted. A flashback shows the murder of a nun (stabbed in the chest with a screw) from the perspective of the killer. Murder (or attempted murder) of children with accompanying suicide by the killer is a recurring theme. A vicious ghost attacks humans, biting one on the back, throwing another down a flight of stairs, and possessing then killing another off-screen.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: The final state of those who harm children is miserable (Matthew 18:4-5), though the reality differs greatly from the fictional mythology of this film.