Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jessica Chastain, Isabelle Nélisse, and Megan Charpentier in MamaMAMA

A new film titled Mama opened this past weekend, and it stars Jessica Chastain. Given the current Oscar nominee's cinematic omnipresence over the past two years, you may be inclined to say, "Well, of course it does." But I'm leading with that information because in addition to being almost insanely prolific, Chastain (whose recent résumé also boasts The Tree of Life, The Help, Take Shelter, and, of course, Zero Dark Thirty) is about as reliable an indicator of quality as this decade's movies have provided. And against considerable odds, not the least being its unpromising January release date, director Andrés Muschietti's outing is a supernatural fright flick of considerable quality - gripping and nerve-racking and sensationally well-made, and yet another showcase for Chastain's stirring soulfulness and remarkable versatility.

Mama finds her playing Annabel, the no-nonsense bassist for a goth-rock band, and the somewhat unwitting caretaker to the emotionally damaged nieces of her boyfriend Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Orphaned and presumed dead for five years, the eight- and six-year-old girls end up in Annabel's and Jeffrey's care after being accidentally discovered living a feral life in a remote woodland shack. But as we know from the film's eerie, unsettling prelude, the children were hardly alone in the woods. Watching over them was a ghostly, murderously protective being that the girls refer to and address as "Mama," and now - with young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) under the watch of their new guardians and an obsessively devoted psychologist (Daniel Kash) - Mama wants the kids back.

It's a solid, spooky premise for an unpretentious fright film, and while his offering isn't without its derivative elements - chiefly an overly aggressive Fernando Velázquez score that keeps chiming in when silence would be preferable - Muschietti knows how to stage both traditional and teasing freak-outs with élan. You jump at Mama's surprise appearances and quick, airborne zooms toward the camera, but you're truly captivated by the giggly-creepy sequences in which Muschietti suggests horrors just out of sight; in one especially extraordinary, compositionally incredible take, Lilly is shown playing tug-of-war in her bedroom while it's slowly, subtly revealed that there's no physical being around for her to be playing tug-of-war with. (The scene is capped, beautifully, with the bedroom door shutting while the legs of a chuckling Lilly float along the ceiling.)

Yet what most separates Muschietti's achievement from so many underwhelming genre offerings is its deep and rather shocking humanity. Not only do you care about the fates of the girls - with the grave, touching Charpentier and Nélisse superbly directed throughout - but you even care about the fate of Mama herself, a malevolent specter who, by gradual degrees, grows into a figure of tragic heartache and loss. And while, by now, it should almost go without saying that Jessica Chastain creates another empathetic, moving, and complexly rendered screen character, it also feels like this can't possibly be said enough. Granted an unexpectedly rich and varied emotional arc, the performer enacts Annabel's transition from blithely tolerant babysitter to heroically selfless mother with astonishing assuredness and fluidity, and despite much excellence surrounding her, she singlehandedly makes Mama must-see viewing even for those who don't normally gravitate toward movies of its type. Muschietti's movie is scary stuff. Chastain's unbroken streak of magical portrayals is getting downright terrifying.


Russell Crowe, Jeffrey Wright, and Mark Wahlberg in Broken CityBROKEN CITY

A somewhat rote but fitfully engaging tale of murder, corruption, and political double-dealing in the Big Apple, director Allen Hughes' Broken City tells of a disgraced cop turned private investigator (Mark Wahlberg) who becomes embroiled all manner of noir-ish chicanery involving the city's shady mayor (Russell Crowe). All told, the movie's not bad; it's a little low on originality and surprise, but Hughes - who usually directs alongside his twin brother Albert - displays his typical flair for gritty neo-realism, and there are fine, blunt performances by the leads, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Kyle Chandler, and Barry Pepper. But about 10 minutes into the film, an actress named Alona Tal shows up in the role of Wahlberg's gal Friday, and for the next hour and a half, thanks to the sensational freshness and confidence of this young performer, I don't think I gave Broken City itself more than a passing thought. Boasting electrifying screen charisma and crack timing that rivals that of Anna Kendrick, Tal makes the sort of impact here that leaves you grinning and asking, "Who is that?" following her every appearance, and if Jessica Chastain seems to be in every other movie now being released, maybe Tal can start lucking into the other half.


Johnny Knoxville and Arnold Schwarzenneger in The Last StandTHE LAST STAND

In the signature moment from director Jee-woon Kim's bloody action pic The Last Stand, a fiendish thug snarls at our hero, "Who the hell are you?" His answer comes in the form of an immediate bullet to the brain and the instantly recognizable, Austrian-on-Xanax cadences of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who replies, "I'm duh sheriff." If you've been aching for the return of those testosterone-fueled, so-bad-they're-almost-kinda-funny "classics" from the '80s and The Expendables and its sequel haven't fully satisfied that itch, this will absolutely be the movie for you. I can't say the same, like at all, but if these things keep Ah-nold out of politics and housekeepers, I guess they're serving some good.

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