Friday, January 18, 2013

MAMA Is Grim Fairy-Tale Fun

MAMA Review:

- Mama is easily a cut above your average horror film. While it does have some of the standard-issue jump scares and common-sense deprived characters of your typical run-of-the-mill horror flick, it's got a lot that separates it from the pack, and that elevates it above so many of the other generic horror movies to have come out recently. For one thing, under the guidance of producer and creative genius Guillermo Del Toro, Mama has a rich, compelling mythology and an even richer visual palette. The movie looks amazing - blending gothic horror with creepy-fairy-tale fantasy to weave some truly spellbinding sequences. Director Andres Muschietti really knocks it out of the park. The movie also has heart - I can't remember the last time I saw a horror movie where I actually felt fully invested in the characters, and felt not just fright, but sadness and joy. Finally, MAMA has got one of the best actresses in the biz today - Jessica Chastain. Proving that there isn't anything she can't do, Chastain plays against type as a gothed-out riot girl who is an interesting and complex character. MAMA is good stuff - creepy, cool, and a lot of fun.

The movie starts out on a harrowing note, as we're immediately thrust into an intense scene of domestic hell. A mentally unstable father - played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister on Game of Thrones) - drives his two young daughters through a snow-covered mountain road. We find out that the father has just murdered his wife, and might now have similar intentions for his daughters. But the car crashes, and the trio end up deep in the snow-covered woods. They stumble through the trees and twigs until they come across an old, abandoned cabin. They take shelter, as the father contemplates doing harm to his innocent children. But suddenly, the father is thwarted and disposed of by a vengeful spirit - "Mama." This spirit watches over the children, and for five years, raises them as her own - as feral, animalistic creatures - deep within the woods. Eventually, the children are found by a search party - their uncle Jeffrey (also played by Coster-Waldau) has kept looking for them all this time. He and his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) take in the girls, who are now very much damaged by their experiences in the woods. The older daughter, Victoria, can still speak - and adjusts a little easier to being in civilization again. But the younger daughter, Lilly, is far gone - she doesn't talk, she walks on all fours, and she still has an unholy connection to the spirit she calls Mama. And Mama still has a connection to the girls. Jealous and rage-filled, Mama haunts Jeffrey and Annabel's home in hopes of reclaiming the girls she believes are hers and hers alone to love.

The two young girls in the film are fantastic. Megan Charpientier, who plays the older Victoria, is the more conflicted of the two - struggling to become a normal girl again and escape the influence of Mama. Lilly, the younger daughter, played by Isabelle Nelisse - is just delightfully deranged - weird and eerie and wholly convincing as a person who has known virtually nothing except for life in the wild. Together, they really help make the movie as good as it is. Even as you're semi-terrified of the girls, you also can't help but come to feel invested in their well-being.

And that same evolution is what makes Jessica Chastain's Annabel such a compelling character. She's a punk rocker who doesn't want kids. She's not a bad person, just a little rough around the edges - and definitely not enthused about taking in two feral kids who talk to a possibly vengeful spirit. But Annabel does slowly come to care for these kids, and it's a character arc that happens slowly, but in a way that really makes Annabel feel fully-fleshed-out. And man, it's sort of amazing watching Chastain in this so soon after Zero Dark Thirty - it's a completely different character, but Chastain just sort of disappears into the role. If you didn't know it was her, you might think it was a completely different actress. She, also, really elevates this film with her performance.

Visually, the movie has a dark fairy-tale vibe and also shows a lot of J-horror influence. Some may complain that some of the movie's visual motifs - like the smoky black holes that appear in the walls, signalling the presence of Mama - are too derivative of other Japan-influenced horror flicks. But I thought there was a real visual inventiveness to the movie that helped it to feel like more than just a pastiche of genre influences. And in the third act, when things get really crazy and sort of epic, there are some gorgeous scenes of ethereal mayhem. There's even a really cool, ultra-stylized dream-sequence that tells Mama's backstory, shot in a disorienting first-person perspective, that I thought worked well.

And again, I found myself surprised at how the movie turned out to be much more than just scares. There's heart in MAMA - as in, there were some moments that I had chills, and some moments where I felt sad and/or moved for these characters. And there is some strong narrative complexity here as well, in that there are some nicely-drawn parallels between Mama and Annabel, and some poetic symmetry in how their relationships with Victoria and Lilly evolve.

Before I get too caught up in praising the film though, I will point out that its high points are nearly matched by some moments of lameness and cheese. Two key side characters, for example - a psychiatrist working with the girls, and a steely aunt in a custody battle with Jeffrey and Annabel - are often eye-rollingly one-note. As such, they often act according to horror movie cliche, and make the sort of lame-brained decisions that will have you screaming at the movie screen. The movie can also feel a little jumpy. While I appreciate that it doesn't spend too much time having everyone doubt Mama's existence, or dwell too much on the "mystery" of her backstory, some sequences do feel slightly rushed. Namely, characters have to make a lot of big, Mulder-esque leaps towards the end of the film. Something that happens in a lot of movies, sure - but in Mama, there are enough instances of characters acting with nuance and intelligence that the moments when they don't are particularly jarring. Finally, given that most of the movie has a great, creeptastic atmosphere, I also felt like there were way too many jump-scare attempts. It felt unnecessary - especially in the instances where the scares were just fake-outs.

Overall though, MAMA really impressed me - and I'd count it as one of the most interesting and rewarding horror movies I've seen in a while. I really enjoyed the twisted fairy-tale-esque vibe of the film - the Del Toro touch really gave the movie that extra visual pop. It also felt like there was more thematic depth, more epicness, and more genuine emotion on display than in most horror flicks. And if that's not enough, there's also Jessica Chastain in fine form, rocking goth gear and a bad attitude and making even more of a case for her status as one of the best actresses in Hollywood. Whoah mama indeed.

My Grade: B+

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