Sunday, January 20, 2013

Talking Points -- Mama (2013)

Get ready for the boom, kid! You know it's coming...

All the elements are there: an isolated cabin, creepy kids, an “imaginary” friend, naïve adults, an obsessive psychiatrist, a foreign house. As I watched Mama, I couldn’t help but have a been-there-done-that feeling in my stomach. Nothing the movie does really surprises, challenges, or invites hyperbole. But, sometimes it’s not about the elements, but about their execution. What Mama does well is put all the pieces together with terrific sincerity and craft.

This is not to say that I want to revisit this film again, or that it will do more than get a “ho-hum” out of me when it is released on Blu-ray in six months. It’s a standard, run of the mill horror film, with a clever story, a terrific performance from Jessica Chastain, but is bogged down by some recent horror movie clichés and a lame ending.

Talking Point #1: Compelling story, lame ending

Mama begins five years ago. Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has lost his mind. He kills his estranged wife, then rushes home to abduct his two girls and takes them on a trip into the mountains where he intends to kill them and himself at an isolated cabin in the woods. Unfortunately for Jeffrey, cabins in the woods are often not what they seem, and his efforts are for naught. Time passes, and Jeffrey’s twin brother, Lucas, is still searching for his nieces even though he doesn’t make enough money as an artist to cover the checks he writes to the two hillbillies he has hired to conduct the search. Fortunately, the searchers find the cabin and the girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse), who have managed to survive on bugs, worms, and a massive amount of cherries, but have become feral, and uncommunicative. Lucas manages to make a deal with the ambitious Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) to gain custody of the girls as long as he moves into a house specifically owned by the county for case studies. Lucas heartily agrees, and his punk rock girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain) reluctantly chooses to tag along out of love and obligation.

Of course, things are not what they seem with these girls. They claim to have been raised in the woods by a person called “Mama,” who Dr. Dreyfuss believes is a manifestation of a dissociative personality disorder in the oldest girl, Victoria. He’s wrong, but you already knew that from the trailers. The plot takes the requisite twists and turns as it propels to its finale. I imagine, if you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, that you can already see where the story is going – from Annabelle’s rise from anti-mother type to full-fledged protector to the complex and looney tunes back story of the monster. It’s not hard to figure the movie out, but that’s not that big a deal.

What is a big deal is the ending, which is underwhelming and is ultimately confusing. After the movie, my girlfriend went online to look up a couple pieces of information concerning the connection between Lily, the younger girl, and Mama, and what she discovered was never revealed in the script. If it was, I missed it, but that didn’t change the fact that I felt the ending copped out in how it dealt with the resolution of Mama’s ghostly struggle, and our protagonist’s handling of it. In addition, there were some loose ends, like the Dreyfuss’ trip to the cabin, and a subplot involving the girls’ meddling aunt that were left exposed in unsatisfying ways.

Fortunately for Mama, the movie’s success does not hinge on its ending. It’s merely a letdown. And while the plot is conventional, the movie has other things going for it that keep it from becoming as awful as Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a couple years ago.

Talking Point #2: I am now drinking the Jessica Chastain Kool-Aid.

I recently read a critic who called Jessica Chastain this generation’s Meryl Streep. After looking at her body of work, there is no denying the validity of the claim. The woman picks terrific roles, and even in a B-movie like Mama, she elevates the material with her mere presence. Annabelle could have come across as a grating punk rock chick, but with Chastain in the role, she is embodied as a complete human being: reluctant to be a mother, yet nurturing and thoughtful, while still edgy and uncertain in her own abilities. As Annabelle goes through her obvious arc from punk rocker who celebrates a negative pregnancy test to full-fledged mother who would die for her kids, it never feels forced or untrue.

The trick is in the details. Chastain’s body language starts so standoffish and tense, like the strings of the bass guitar she plays, but as the story unfolds, her body language loosens and softens as it relates to the curious girls she’s been forced to raise. Her punk rock defiance rears its head at interesting moments as she interacts with outside characters, like the girls’ opportunistic aunt. And her costuming changes as the movie nears its climax are subtle and reflective of the woman she sees herself becoming. For a B-movie, this is a strong performance, which puts Chastain at the head of the class when ranking this current generation of film actresses.

Talking Point #3: Yo, sound mixers! Can’t you find a better way to shock and awe?

I’m seriously tired of the “boom” cliché. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s when the camera cuts to a scary image – usually an attacker emerging from the background, or a point-of-view shot from the victim’s perspective – and the soundtrack issues an escalating hum climaxing with a “BOOM!” Honestly, I don’t know when or how this convention got started, but it has become so prevalent in horror movies over the last decade – especially the more bloodless PG-13 ones – that I find myself taken out of every startling moment.

My biggest complaint here is that the soundtrack is substituted for a real scare. Directors are also in love with smash cuts of scary images, too, as if jumping in your seat is the same thing as being scared. It’s a roller coaster mentality that gets real old, real fast, and after awhile becomes a crutch for lesser filmmakers. Real terror is established through context and connection with characters, not through editing (sound and visual) gimmicks.

Now, while Mama is a pretty egregious violator with this, it does have a few chilling moments. My favorite occurs early in the film, in which Jessica Chastain’s character, Annabelle, is coming up the stairs of their house to put away laundry. We get a terrific jolt of dramatic irony when we see in the corner of the shot one of the little girls playing tug of war, we assume with her sister – that is until the sister appears in the shot behind Annabelle. Very creepy.

Straightforward, sincere, and occasionally scary, Mama is a solid horror movie. It’s good for a night out, but not much more.

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