Film review: 'Mama'
MANILA, Philippines - "Mama" begins with a mad, frantic rush to the woods.
An unhinged father (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays both father and his twin Uncle Luke) takes his two daughters away from their home in the suburbs, drives their car off a snow-covered road, and brings them to a dark, abandoned cabin. It is there that "Mama" relieves him of his parental duties — and his life — and takes over the care of the children.
Five years later, the kids are found and brought to their uncle, their father's twin, who, along with his rocker girlfriend (Jessica Chastain), takes them in with the hopes of rehabilitating them after the traumatizing experience.
What I like about the film is that it plays on and gives a new twist to a familiar story. We've heard of the girl who grew up with a pack of wolves, or the feral wild child.
Here, we get two new twists to it: First off is that it is a generally malevolent spirit that takes the kids in and shapes the bulk of their consciousness and how they interact with the world. Second is that rather than just have one girl, we have the two sisters, whose relationship here is often endearing and heartbreaking.
These kids do an amazing job. Some of it aided by CG, but the bulk of it just some great physical acting; they deliver chilling and tragic performances. Some of it is in the service of cheap thrills, as the younger girl, Lily (played by Isabelle Nelisse), moves about in a feral manner and comes from the most surprising and unlikely places. She pops out and looks weird and we're given a cheap scare.
But some of it is even more affecting, such as when the two first arrive at the house in which they will be staying. Lily hides behind her older sister, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), as the two wander the grounds, and it is both sweet and painful to watch how Lily clings to her sister. It's bits like this that provide emotion to an often too simple film.
The acting is strong. Jessica Chastain manages to sell her character's change of heart, as she goes from imposed-upon girlfriend to someone who genuinely cares for the girls. This transformation could have used more nuance and care, but then the film wasn't too concerned with character development as it used most of its time going for quick little scares.
That's where I have bones to pick with the flick. It strings up the cheap scares, the bits of suspense, the creepy images that send the shiver down your spine. Fine, well and good, it delivers on that — the creepy shadow in the corner, the flickering lights, the dark thing in the distance, the sudden, darting apparition.
But once it has made you jump in your seat, once the chill has passed, that's it.
This is largely due to the fact that most of the film is predictable. Characters are not so much real, believable people, but stereotypes. This is only overcome by the prowess of the actors, particularly Chastain and the child actors. But then the plot develops and escalates precisely how we would expect it to.
Further, we have the typical horror movie stupidity at play. Not only do characters do exactly what you should not do when freaky horror movie stuff starts happening, but they walk right into things. We've got the stereotype psychiatrist who sees the kids as a great case study to write about. Of course, he will get engrossed, freak out, and head off on his own.
Other characters do that too, heading off into the darkness even if no person in their right mind would do that. Oh, the horror of horror movie character behavior.
Another reason that I felt the film was not as scary as it could have been was the excessive use of CG in putting Mama onscreen. This was a case of seeing too much of the monster making it not scary anymore. As long as it was a black patch, a thing just in the corner, then I could be frightened of it.
But with its extensive screen time, and seeing it as so obviously a CG creation, I was pulled out of the world of the movie and reminded that it was a movie. The suspension of disbelief was gone. And as the film drew towards its final conclusion, which seemed executed more to maximize CG than to provide a satisfying resolution to the story, it lost even more of its scariness.
I am still more scared of what I cannot see. I like to believe that I can still be scared by horror flicks. But it doesn't work for me if I know how everything will go.
Some of the scares are cheap. As mentioned before, the darting in the darkness, the flickering lights. Add to that creepy songs, creepy kids, the woods, feral movements, whatever. It's stuff that I have seen so often that I see it from a mile away.
While "Mama" delivers visceral thrills and shoots the shivers up the spine, it does not leave us with something that we will have nightmares about. It's alright, though. It actually does better than a lot of the recent horror drivel that has come out.
We can see some good acting, and that the filmmakers really tried with this. It just doesn't stick, isn't memorable. For an hour and a half of jumping in your seat though, you could do worse. - Rappler.com
("Mama" is showing in Philippine cinemas)
Carljoe Javier doesn't know why people think he's a snarky film critic who spends his time dashing the hopes of filmgoers. He thinks he's not all that bad, really. He teaches at the State U, writes books, and studies film, comics, and video games... Then again, those people could be right.