Pretty early on in MAMA, you're going to have to make a decision that's going to make or break the film for you. Is the CGI creation of Mama too much for you to accept or not? If so, I can completely understand why you're going to check out of the movie. Right from the very first glimpse of this supernatural being, as slight as it may be, it's easy to be distracted from the story at hand by the nature of the effects. It's jarring to see something that looks so fake residing in a world that feels anything but, a world you are pulled into right away by the prologue of a man at the end of his rope who has recently shot his two business partners, killed his wife and has kidnapped his two children. You have no idea where the movie is about to go, but it certainly is off to an interesting start that has you wanting to be led off into the unknown, to see what MAMA is all about. And, if the film does its job for you as it did for me, gripping you with fear as you worry for the fate of these two young girls - ages 1 and 3 - who are thrust into very dangerous circumstances, then you'll be able to settle in on the creature and enjoy the rest of the ride which showcases yet another phenomenal performance by Jessica Chastain. i can't tell how you'll react, but, for me, once I got past the fact that this is Mama, warts and all, and accepted her as the character the movie needs her to be, MAMA continued to press on as a pretty effective supernatural horror.
Five years after the film's opening, we find the girls' uncle Lucas (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, "the Kingslayer" Jaime Lannister for you GAME OF THRONES fans out there) - their father's brother - still conducting a desperate search to find them, believing that they're still out there alive somewhere. His girlfriend Annabel (the brilliant Jessica Chastain) doesn't share his enthusiasm, because the attention he's paying this manhunt is only taking away from their time together. She's not exactly the jealous type, but she's also not the responsible kind either, as she'd prefer to spend her days just playing bass in her rock band, spending time with her man or... well, doing nothing. When the children are found, living in a rundown house out in the middle of the woods, feeding on cherries to keep them alive, and are put in their custody to help them readjust to society once more, Annabel isn't quite sure how she's going to be able to handle the weight of having to look after two girls. She hardly has the maternal instinct... and, even if she had ever considered bearing children, she certainly isn't ready to be thrown into the deep end, caring for two girls who might as well have been raised by wolves out in the wild for the past few years. But it's not only the girls she's going to have to keep an eye on... it was Mama who they were with in the wilderness... and she's not exactly ready to give them up.
Andres Muschietti has certainly put together a beautiful looking film. For all the debates I've had in previous weeks about Tom Hooper's inability to make a film that doesn't look horrible, it's a pleasure to watch a movie by this first time director that uses the camera as a tool to dictate a wide range of emotions for you to feel at the proper moments corresponding with the actions taking place on the screen. Muschietti is able to disorient and confuse with camera movement, making you feel tense and uneasy and uncomfortable not only by hiding the monster as best as he can and using its mystery to put you on edge, but by simple choices in the cinematography that prompt you to feel a certain way at a certain moment. He has built a film that works on two different levels - one as a horror with this unknown entity in the house that threatens those who have designs on watching after these two little girls and two as a mystery, which slowly chips away at the questions that keep you involved in the film. Who is Mama? Where did she come from? Why is she still here? What does she want? These answers will be revealed one at a time along the way, but, in operated as both a horror and a mystery, Muschietti allows you to become active in trying to unlock the mystery, while filling the gaps in between with both creepiness and outright scares.
I have no doubt that MAMA would have been a solid flick even without Jessica Chastain involved... but with her carrying the emotional weight of the film, it's that much better. When I see Jessica Chastain's name attached to a film, I know I'm in store for one stellar performance at the very least, and, in that respect, MAMA is no different. Just look at her recent string of films - ZERO DARK THIRTY, LAWLESS, THE HELP, THE TREE OF LIFE, THE DEBT, CORIOLANUS, TAKE SHELTER... even in the films I wasn't so crazy about, she still delivers incredible work. With MAMA, she helps bring to life this double meaning for the title. Yes, it's about this ghostly being known as Mama... but it's also about the progression of Annabel into a reliable and mature maternal figure. This is much different than anything we've seen Chastain do so far and her transformation from this elegant and always classy woman to a short haired, tattooed rocker chick is remarkable. Her relationship with these two girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) unfolds much like the rest of the movie... at a deliberate pace to maximize the audience's investment in the story.
If there's one big complaint I have with MAMA, it's the ending... and no, not how Muschietti chooses to end his story... but how long he takes to do it. Remember when you thought Peter Jackson was taking forever to drop Kong off the top of the Empire State Building...? Well, this feels longer. Muschietti's choices tie in with the rest of the movie, but he just takes so long to execute them. It doesn't pull you any further into the resolution... it just makes you wish it was paced much better, a problem that only seems to seep into those final moments as the rest of the movie moves along slowly but steadily.
MAMA is a pretty good watch. Between Chastain's performance, which is never anything short of awesome, and Muschietti's direction, there's a lot to like here. If you can't get past the CGI, I get it, and can totally see where you're coming from. But give it a shot and see if Mama settles in for you after a little bit, because, if she does, you've got a good flick waiting for you on the other side.
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