Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: Mama

Horror films are usually reserved for those unknown not-ready-for-primetime actors or for those past their prime looking for a few more days in the proverbial sun.  So when one of these films drop with an A-list name attached to it, it tends to garner extra notice.  Such is the case with Mama – a film produced by fan boy favorite Guillermo Del Toro and starring Jessica Chastain; she of Zero Dark Thirty, The Help, and The Tree of Life fame.  And while I was initially tepid about this film as presented in the trailer, I went into it with elevated expectations.  The presence of Chastain and the strong word of mouth buzz this movie had generated left me expecting to find the genre elevated in ways I had never seen before.

What I found was anything but that. 

The plot of the film finds two young girls (Victoria and Lilly) stranded in the woods after a violent murder/suicide leaves them orphaned.  When they are finally found several years later and brought into the care if their uncle and his not-ready-for-domesticity girlfriend, the spirit that nurtured them all those years in the woods proves unwilling to let them go.  Thus begins a paranormal onslaught upon their newly formed familial unit.

The premise is moderately unique in regards to the plight of the two young girls in the woods, but seemingly every horror movie over the last ten years centers on a spirit with unresolved issues that is tethering them to the world of the living.  Mama is no exception to this trend, which has become so pervasive that a frail female entity with long dark ravenous hair lurking in the corners of every ceiling has become the ultimate cliché.  Because of this, every tense scene or cheap scare cooked up by director Andres Muschietti feels tired and unimaginative; not exactly a winning blueprint to a successful cinematic thriller.

Despite the absence of a strong antagonist to strike fear into the hearts of viewers, most of the cast turn in a better than average performance for your typical horror fare.  It is by no means Chastain’s best work, but for the most part she comes as advertised.  She blends so far into the role that you forget that you are watching the Academy Award nominee onscreen.  This is no easy feat for one who sits on the A-list.  Sure, it helps that her trademark red mane is tucked beneath a black wig, but that it no way lessens her commitment to the role.  Sadly though, her turn as a wannabe rocker cum stepmother completely unravels, though this is undoubtedly the result of the film’s catastrophic climax rather than Chastain’s acting competency.

Working opposite Chastain is Game of Thrones’ star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jeffrey.  Waldau turns in a nice but unremarkable performance hitting the right notes as the concerned yet somewhat oblivious uncle.  While he never misses a beat in this movie and convincingly conveys the characters complete affability, he does nothing to distinguish himself from any number of stock characters that typically embody the same characteristics in nearly every single film.  Simply put, his Jeffrey comes off as just another good guy and that’s clearly not good enough for a movie lacking quality plot mechanisms.

Rounding out the cast are Isabelle Nelisse and Megan Charpentier as Victoria and Lilly, and Daniel Kash as the doctor who is investigating their case.  I found Nelisse and Charpentier to be your typical run of the mill child actors, meaning they were hit-or-miss from scene-to-scene, offering little to distinguish themselves from their peers.  As for Kash, he is good as the sometimes genuinely concerned / sometimes morally questionable psychologist and because of this ambiguous turn, his Dr. Dreyfuss is the most curious of the lot.

Still, despite some decent-to-good acting, I found this movie disappointing.  Part of it, no doubt, is fuel by elevated expectations.  But really, my tepid reaction to this film probably had a lot to do with first seeing The Conjuring, which greatly surpasses Mama as an exercise in cinematic terror.  Is it fair to make such a comparison?  Absolutely, and in my opinion, these two movies are not in the same class.  Judged on its own merits, Mama will offer horror enthusiasts a few good scares, but not nearly enough to make this a must see.  At its core, Mama is a cable TV movie – nothing more and nothing less, and best saved for the Halloween season when all things that go bump in the night have a way of igniting the imagination.

Standout Performance:  Jessica Chastain.  Despite the characters shortcomings, kudos to her for disappearing into the role.


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