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Films I Neglected To Review: No Wonder Everyone Fled To Toronto

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/07/18 15:17:36

Please enjoy short reviews of "Mara," "Nelly" and "Peppermint."

The idea of basing a horror film around the concept of sleep paralysis --that bizarre and terrifying phenomenon that finds its victims waking up but being unable to move or speak--sounds potentially interesting, I suppose. Alas, ''Mara'' turns out to be a film that introduces that premise only to squander it on just another by-the-numbers horror movie destined to be tossed away into the VOD graveyard. Olga Kurylenko stars as Kate Fuller, a criminal psychologist assigned to the case of a woman who is accused of strangling her husband, a crime supposedly witnessed by their young daughter. The woman claims that her husband was actually killed by a strange supernatural force, an admission that gets her carted off to a mental hospital. Feeling guilty over this--she promised the girl that her mother would not be sent away if she told what she saw--Kate begins to investigate things a little more fully and stumbles across a group of sleep-deprived people--whom the husband was a part of--who are all being haunted by an ancient demon who haunts them in stages, including paralysis, before eventually killing them in their sleep. Before long, Kate herself begins to undergo the same symptoms as the others and finds herself in a race against time to discover the truth about the demon and its connection to those people before it can kill both her and the now-afflicted daughter.

The problem with ''Mara'' isn’t so much that it isn't scary--though it is not in the least bit frightening unless one finds the very notion of sleep paralysis to be inherently triggering--as it is dull. The entire thing lumbers along in such a listless manner that it feels as if the film itself is suffering from some form of paralysis. The screenplay by Jonathan Frank is the usual compilation of cliche characters and stock situation and director Clive Tonge is unable to generate any sense of tension or style or excitement--even the big ''BOO!'' moments come across as more exhausted than anything else. Kurylenko is an actress whose career has been eclectic enough to find her co-starring in James Bond movies and Terrence Malick joints but not even she can quite manage to do anything with her one-note character to bring her to life. Filled with scenes and ideas that you have seen before that have been executed here in a manner that never even rises to the level of perfunctory, ''Mara'' is just a waste of time for all concerned and while it might be slightly better than total crap like ''The Nun,'' the fact that it isn't that much better is perhaps the only aspect of the film that could legitimately be deemed terrifying.

Who was Nelly Arcan anyway? Was she the author of a number of controversial best-selling books in her native Canada? Was she Cynthia, the name she adopted as the professional sex worker whose escapades helped to inspire those novels? Was she the glamorous and confident party girl that she liked to present herself as to the press and the public? Was she the scared and vulnerable woman who unsuccessfully tried to keep her demons at bay with drugs, booze and toxic love affairs? Was she the sweet and shy young girl named Isabelle Fortier who would one day become those other iterations? In bringing Arcan's story to the screen in the biopic ''Nelly,'' writer-director Anne Edmond has elected to give all of those aspects of her personality equal weight in order to show how the sheer effort of maintaining all of them as a way of disguising who she really was, even from herself, simply became too much for her to handle. This is an interesting and novel approach for a film of this sort to take but after a while, it becomes obvious that Edmond does not quite have what it takes to make those ambitions pay off in a satisfying way. While the narrative approach is daring enough, its formal ambitions are much more restrained and there are times when it looks as if we are watching a TV movie rather than a feature film.

As for the narrative itself, the decision to not give any one of the various Nelly’s dominance over the others sounds smart but it means that the film keeps switching from one version to the next without ever letting things build properly and it never seems to have any idea of who the real Nelly was after all--not the kind of half-baked conclusion that you want to arrive at after two hours. (One could argue, of course, that Nelly was a person who could be more than one thing--a good point but one that the film doesn't quite manage to make either.) Playing all but the teenaged version of Arcan, Mylene Mackay is good at suggesting the different aspects of her character but the performance is not revelatory enough to overcome the otherwise half-baked nature of the film as a whole. Maybe a straightforward documentary would have been a better vehicle for telling Arcan's story in a way that fully encompassed all of its complexities in a more satisfying manner than ''Nelly'' does.

Imagine a lesser ''Death Wish'' ripoff sporting a MAGA hat and you have a vague idea of what you are in for with ''Peppermint,'' an odious would-be thriller that somehow manages to come across as both wildly offensive and incredibly boring. Jennifer Garner, for reasons that completely elude me, stars as Riley, an ordinary soccer mom who sees her husband and daughter gunned down before her eyes by members of a Hispanic drug gang led by the ruthless Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). Although Riley can identify the shooters, Diego pays off the lawyers and judge and the killers get off scot-free while Riley gets sentenced to a mental hospital. She promptly escapes and disappears off the grid for five years before reappearing to enact a mission of revenge that finds her gunning down everyone (and everyone adjacent to them) responsible for taking away everything she had. While a drunk cop (John Gallagher Jr.) and a smart FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh) lead the hunt to track Riley down, her trail of carnage and dead bodies makes her a hero on social media for her willingness to take the law into her own hands.

When the trailer for the film, which heavily focused on the sight of Jennifer Garner shooting lots of Hispanics in the face in what seemed to be a Trumpian fever dream, some commentators suggested that there was the possibility that it could be construed as being slightly racist. If anything, the trailer lowballed this aspect because the film is almost jaw-dropping in its anti-Hispanic attitudes. Every bad guy is either Hispanic or in the pay of Hispanics--presumably to do the jobs they don’t want to do--and the film goes to extraordinary lengths to depict them solely as cartoonish monsters whose destruction we can feel good about when Garner pops up to mow them down indiscriminately. At one point--no joke--she shoots about 20 Hispanics in the face during a siege at, of all places, a piñata factory and when she decides to let one person live in order to tell her tale, it just happens to be the one white guy in the place. Even more odiously, the film has gone out of its way to cast black and Hispanic actors in most of the key authority roles as well, presumably in the name of ''balance,'' but since Garner is the only one who actually gets things done, the gesture rings exceptionally hollow.

Even if you can somehow excuse or justify the overt racism on display in virtually every scene in ''Peppermint,'' there is the inescapable fact that it sucks runny eggs simply in action movie terms. The film finds director Pierre Morel revisiting territory that he explored in the surprise hit ''Taken'' and while that film was undeniably nasty and kind of xenophobic, it was nevertheless made with a lot of style and flair and contained a strong and effective performance from Liam Neeson. By comparison, ''Peppermint'' is a slog that contains plenty of moments of gruesome brutality but the action sequences are dreary and oddly inert slogs that fail to generate any sort of tensions or visceral excitement. In fact, the only thing that might keep viewers paying attention to the film as it goes on is the anticipation that something will come up that would explain why Jennifer Garner would sign on to a project as sleazy and unrewarding as this one. She is an enormously likable actress and has proven herself to be more than convincing in the past in action roles but there is nothing on display that suggests why she might have wanted what is little more than a racist remake of ''The Punisher'' on her filmography. On every conceivable level, ''Peppermint'' is an embarrassment--the kind of movie that makes ''Mile 22'' look coherent and nuanced by comparison.

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