Mama. Too creepy for middle-schoolers — and certainly too nightmarish for tweens — “Mama” has style and sensibility that will appeal to high-schoolers who like their horror done with more art and less gore. The vengeful phantom of the title reveals herself only a little at first, flitting darkly behind characters, then disappearing. It is the foreboding and the mystery of her that keep this ghost story engaging. We learn of a troubled corporate executive who kills his wife. He takes his two daughters away in the car and crashes. The three take refuge in a small abandoned house in the woods. A phantom in the house stops the father from hurting the girls. Then the film jumps five years ahead. The girls’ Uncle Lucas has been trying to find his nieces ever since. Trackers finally discover them living in the cabin. Lucas and his girlfriend, Annabel, try to raise them. The phantom that protected the girls in the cabin has a jealous nature and a tragic back story.
THE BOTTOM LINE: As the spirit of Mama grows stronger and more aggressive, she becomes more visible. Her face starts to emerge. Stains in the walls, like rot, grow larger and release tentacles or noisy moths that portend death. Later scenes of violence are stylized and not graphic. The film includes occasional profanity and a brief non-explicit love scene.
Amour. Only the most sophisticated high-schoolers will be able to handle this film because of the subject matter: growing old and disabled, and dying. If they also happen to be interested in film acting of the highest order, they’ll be transfixed by co-stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The pace of “Amour,” its somber themes and the subtitles will appeal only rarely to middle-schoolers. Anne suffers a couple of strokes and goes from being an active person to needing a wheelchair and constant care, which Georges takes on. The film recounts the day-to-day difficulties as Anne’s condition worsens, yet it is beautiful in its portrayal of their Paris apartment as Georges shuffles through its hallways and rooms, tending to his wife.
The bottom line: One scene involves nudity as Anne is bathed by a nurse. SPOILER ALERT: There is a disturbing euthanasia theme.
Luv. A relatively mild R in terms of the understated way it depicts violence, “LUV” earns its rating more for language. It could be a powerful morality tale for many high-schoolers 16 and older. Eleven-year-old Woody, a nice boy with a gift for drawing, lives in Baltimore with his grandmother. His mother, he’s told, is in North Carolina, and he’ll see her again one day. His Uncle Vincent has just returned from prison and claims he’ll go straight and start a business. But Vincent’s drug-dealing past and his ties to a crime boss and other compatriots soon pull him back into the life. Vincent takes Woody out of school for a day of “meetings,” claiming he’s teaching the boy how to be a man. The meetings turn violent, and Woody grows up too fast.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Woody is put in danger among criminal adults. Scenes of gun violence are quick, tense and scary but not overly graphic. Adult characters use drugs. The dialogue features strong profanity and the N-word. Uncle Vincent teaches Woody to fire a gun, drive a car and negotiate with criminals. Others make Woody drink a beer.
Zero Dark Thirty. The graphic al-Qaeda terrorism and the torture used by CIA operatives in this account of the search for Osama bin Laden make “Zero Dark Thirty” truly for viewers 17 and older. CIA agent Maya has made it her business to find bin Laden, despite colleagues’ doubts about her theories. Maya deduces that the path to bin Laden is through al-Qaeda’s elusive couriers. It takes years before she is certain. The last 30 minutes or so follow the raid closely, and filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatization is utterly riveting.
The bottom line: Scenes in which CIA operatives use coercive methods on terror suspects are graphic and disturbing, both as simple violence and as nuanced moral choices. Other violence includes frightening suicide bombings telegraphed with incredible tension. Characters smoke, drink and use strong profanity. The movie opens in blackness, with emotional recordings of phone calls made by victims trapped in the burning World Trade Center towers to their families on Sept. 11, 2001.
Gangster Squad. Too deafeningly violent and full of profanity and graphic sexual slang for moviegoers younger than 17, “Gangster Squad” could also put off older teens and adults who may have seen enough violence in the news and on film. It looks and sounds like a high-class graphic novel, with everyone in it bigger than life. Chief Parker orders a tough-as-nails sergeant, John O’Mara, to set up a take-no-prisoners squad to clean up an empire of gambling, prostitution and heroin. With the help of his pregnant wife, Connie, O’Mara studies the files of potential squad members and puts together a team of tough guys, plus one expert wiretapper.
The bottom line: The film opens with an attempted rape, from which O’Mara rescues the young woman. It never becomes graphic. Shootouts are loud, bloody and frequent. The violence includes stabbings and bone-breaking fist fights. A stripper in a club is nearly topless. The script is riddled with profanity and explicit sexual slang. A few ethnic slurs are used.
Horwitz is a freelance writer. Find her previous reviews on the On Parenting page.