THE LAST STAND: 3 CHEESY STARS

Arnold Schwarzenegger is back and along with him is a lot of no frills action. In “The Last Stand,” his first starring role since 2003, he co-stars with bullets, blood, and body count.

Near the beginning of the movie the head lawman of the sleepy border town of Summerton Junction, Sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold), says, “Should be a quiet weekend.” Of course whenever Arnold, or any eighties action star says, “Should be a quiet weekend,” you know all hell is about to break loose. And break loose it does.

In a parallel story ruthless drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) stages an elaborate escape and heads for the Mexican border, which just happens to lie outside Arnold’s… er… Owens’s town. As Cortez speeds toward the border he has a quick cell phone call with Owens. “Do you wanna play?,” he yells. “Let’s play!” And play they do… with big guns.

“The Last Stand” opens with a shot of a cop eating a donut. It’s the first cliche of the film, but it’s not the last.

From the snarling bad guy (actually guys, Peter Stormare is evil as well, yelling, “Bring me THE GUN!” several times), to Arnold’s one-liners, to the bumbling country deputies, the movie is exactly what you think it is going to be. It has an enjoyable simplicity, anchored by Arnold’s no-nonsense performance. Like the non-CGI actioners “Jack Reacher” and “Bullet to the Head,” it’s a Saturday matinee romp that doesn’t make much sense-despite having wild high tech equipment the FBI can’t seem to locate a Corvette speeding through the desert in broad daylight-but is a fun throwback to the years when Arnold was the king of the screen.

He’s moving noticeably slower these days-How are you Sheriff? “Old,” he says. But his comic timing is still there and no one else can battle through this kind of cheesefest and emerge with his action cred intact.

“The Last Stand” is not a movie to be taken seriously, but it wasn’t made to be taken seriously. Why else would cult director Jee-woon Kim cast Johnny Knoxville?

 

MAMA: 3 STARS

Mothers in movies are often portrayed as warm, loving nurturers, unless the movie is produced by horror meister Guillermo Del Toro. In “Mama,” a new supernatural thriller starring Jessica Chastain, the title character is a vengeful spirit, more Mommie Dearest than Mother Goose.

“Mama” begins with the meltdown of a businessman who kills his partners, his ex-wife and kidnaps his two small kids, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) Desange, (rhymes with derange), taking them to a remote cabin in the woods. The first clue that something ghostly is going on comes when little Victoria says, “Daddy, there’s a woman outside and she’s not touching the floor!”

Soon Dada is out of the picture and the girls are presumed missing by everyone except their Uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who spends five years searching for them. When they’re found they’re worse for wear-feral kids who have survived with the help of a supernatural nanny they call Mama. Uncle Luke and Aunt Annabelle (Chastain) try to give them a normal life, but Mama is still a nightmare.

The people you expect in this kind of movie-the expert, the meddler, the spooky record clerk who knows more about the supernatural than the average person (“A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape… looking to right a wrong”) are all present and they do the things people do in these kinds of movies: explore remote haunted places at night with only a flashlight for protection, and stare creepily into space.

So no surprises there, but “Mama” does have some nice subtle creepy reveals-all is not what it appears to be-a vivid dream sequence and, of course, the ethereal Mama, who occasionally resembles a giant hairball on the floor, but is eerie nonetheless.

“Mama” is spooky rather than scary, but has appropriately creepy kids-the little one even scurries around the floor on all fours like a tiny silverback gorilla-and enough jolts to earn a recommend.

 

QUARTET: 3 STARS

For the second time in as many months comes a film set around the world of classical music, with powerhouse performances from an a-list, ensemble cast but despite the similarity of names between “A Late Quartet” and “Quartet” they are actually very different movies.

Both are heartfelt examinations of growing old, but “Quartet,” from 74-year-old director Dustin Hoffman, has more in common with the easy sentiment of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” than “A Late Quartet.”

The action centers around Beechham House, a luxurious retirement home for aging musicians. Three quarters of a once famous vocal quartet, Reginald (Tom Courtenay), Cissy (Pauline Collins), and Wilfred (Billy Connolly), live there quietly until their former diva, Jean (Dame Maggie Smith), arrives. Her presence stirs up old feelings from ex-husband Reggie but might also be the key to changing the fortunes of the cash-strapped retirement home.

Based on a play by Ronald “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” Harwood, “Quartet” could have gone one of two ways. It could’ve been a depressing look at the difficulties of growing old, or it could have turned into one of those “loveable old coot” movies. While both those aspects are present, so are unexpected laughs, elegance and warmth.

Like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” it confronts the vagaries of old age head on, tackling them with equal parts humor and pathos. It treats its elderly characters like vibrant, real people, even though they use walkers and have lapses of memory. Medical conditions aside, emotionally they are as rich—if not richer—than 90% of the characters we see in any Katherine Heigl romantic comedy.

From Jean’s insecurities (“I can’t insult the memory of who I once was.”) to Cissy’s diminishing mental state to Reggie’s attempts to connect with some young students to Wilf’s roguishness, the movie is an intimate look at courage, fragility and Cissy’s favorite saying, “Old age is not for sissies.”

By times it is also, unfortunately, predictable, just this side of twee and don’t get me started about the unsatisfying ending. Luckily it’s a crowd pleaser due to the chemistry of the cast and Hoffman’s sure, but underplayed directorial hand.

 

ON THE ROAD: 4 ½ STARS

At one point in “On the Road,” the new film version of the famous Jack Kerouac novel, a character says, “Bless me father for I will sin.” Many of the fans of the book may take that line as a mea culpa from director Walter Salles, who has dared to bring a novel long thought to be unfilmable to the screen. Beatnik purists need not worry. There are sins on display, just none of the cinematic kind.

Proto beats Dean and Sal (Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley) spit in the eye of authority and embark on an existential search for self on the self-awareness, friendship and the "rainy night of America." Along the way jazz happens, the discovery of the "joy of pure being" is revealed to be fleeting, and the central question, ‘How are we to live?’ goes unanswered.

“On the Road,” the novel and movie, isn’t a piece of art to be explained, it needs to be experienced. The film, like the book is uneventful-nothing resembling an actual story actually happens-but both reverberate with the pulse of bebop jazz. Salles has created a movie populated by fascinating characters played by good actors who live in rhythm to the freeform structure of the story.

It’s a road trip that sees people come and go, relationships formed and broken, and hearts broken. At the center of it all are two souls, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s pseudonym ion the book), bound together by friendship and restless spirits.

Dean is described as someone who spent a third of his time in jail, a third of his time in pool halls, and a third of his time in public libraries. He’s one of the towering characters of American literature and is brought to vivid life by Garrett Hedlund. A charming rascal, he’s deeply self-involved, a hip cat but in reality, the most desperate character in the bunch.

Refusing to take responsibility for himself or his actions he’s the bad boy your mom warned you about and Hedlund embodies it.

But as good as Hedlund is, the movie belongs to Sam Riley, the English actor most distinguished for playing Ian Curtis in the film “Control,” the biopic about the lead singer of Joy Division, is the beating heart of the movie.

Supporting characters come and go. Viggo Mortensen brings edge to his brief portrayal Old Bull Lee (a thinly disguised William S. Burroughs). Kirsten Dunst is shows the deep ache of jilted Camille and Kristen Stewart plays lovesick Marylou as a strong, but vulnerable victim of Dean’s charm.

Some will find ”On the Road” aimless, others will be swept along by its ride, the beautiful photography and the search for meaning.